Jun 02 2008

The Way Space Really Works

In his interesting article in The Atlantic (June, 2008) Gregg Easterbrook emphasizes the threat of asteroid impacts on Earth by saying, “Wouldn’t shifting NASA’s focus away from wasting money on the Moon and toward…deflecting dangerous space objects…” be more likely to increase national prestige? Let’s examine a few of the misconceptions in this question.

The discovery and characterization of asteroids is a NASA function but their removal as a threat (at least to the U.S.) would probably be coordinated by DoD. Legalities aside, the bigger issue is that few people understand the seriousness of the asteroid threat to Earth. The last megaton-level impact was in 1908 in Siberia. Not many of us were alive then and nobody’s been killed since, so it’s hard to identify with.

Easterbrook quotes the odds as 10% per century “of a dangerous space-object strike” somewhere on Earth. The last 200 years indicate — and this blog continues to document –that the next international race to space will begin within 5 to 10 years (See The Forecasts). Fortunately, a space-strike that could “kill millions” is very unlikely in the next few years, and that’s probably the only way in the short term to focus national attention on this issue.

What do the last 200 years teach us? (For more see The Forecasts or The Articles.) Great human explorations, macro-engineering projects (MEPs), and major wars cluster around extraordinary economic booms every 56 years or so. Interestingly, the great explorations display a geographically logical sequence (from the most accessible unknown areas to the least accessible): NW America (Lewis & Clark), Equatorial Africa (Dr. Livingstone), Polar Regions (Peary et al.), Moon (Apollo).

By analogy with the California Gold Rush following Lewis & Clark by 5 decades, we would expect increased human operations in Earth-Moon space (e.g., solar power satellites) while astronauts explore Mars (the next logical exploration target in the sequence above). The U.S. and others are already planning Moon bases by 2020, and by next year, tourists will begin paying for short vacations in space (the new space “gold” rush!); so the ramp-up to this expected Moon/Mars activity is already visible. When asteroid impacts become widely perceived as a threat to civilization, their mitigation will benefit from this expanded Earth-Moon space scenario.

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