News & Politics

Will Humanity go the Way of the Dinosaur?

A new NASA report on killer asteroids ought to spook people into action.
According to a new report from the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, some 100,000 asteroids and comets routinely pass between the Sun and the Earth's orbit. About 20,000 of these orbit close enough to us that they could one day hit the Earth and destroy a major city.

But the really worrying news from NASA is that over a thousand of these things are large enough (almost a mile wide in diameter) and their orbits close enough to us as to pose a real potential hazard of crashing into the Earth with enough force to end most life on this planet. Scientists think this is what killed off the dinosaurs about 65 million years ago.

Congress has given NASA a budget of a little over $4 million a year to track these killer asteroids, but NASA says it needs at least a billion dollars more to find all of them by the year 2020. This might involve building a special observatory for tracking them and launching a spacecraft to observe the space around Earth from Venus.

The job could be finished sooner than 2020, says NASA, but that would probably require a deep space orbiting infrared observatory, at an additional cost of $700 million.

All of which raises at least three pertinent questions.

First, if we're spending over a billion dollars a day in Iraq, why can't we bring the troops home a few days earlier and use the savings to track killer asteroids that might end life on earth?

Second, since we're talking about the survival of most living things and not just Americans, why shouldn't we expect other nations to kick in some money, too -- especially now that the dollar is dropping relative to the euro and the yen?

And third, once NASA knows for sure that a killer asteroid is heading directly for us, how exactly are we supposed to get ourselves out of its way, or it out of our way -- and how much should we be budgeting to accomplish this?
Robert Reich is professor of public policy at the Richard and Rhoda Goldman School of Public Policy at the University of California, Berkeley. He was secretary of labor in the Clinton administration.
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