Thursday, May 15, 2008

Death From Above

Gregg Easterbrook's cover story in this month's Atlantic is about as enjoyable a read as can be managed about our imminent demise. You see, only recently have scientists and astronomers turned their attention to all the crap shooting through space that could one day violently juxtapose itself with our planet, and, as it turns out, there's a shitload more of it than people realized. Asteroids, comets, meteors are in far greater abundance than once thought, and somewhere, out there in the vacuum of space, there's likely to be some peripatetic piece of interstellar flotsam with our name on it.

Naturally, NASA's not even the least bit concerned over the matter:

In January, I attended an internal NASA conference, held at agency headquarters, during which NASA’s core goals were presented in a PowerPoint slideshow. Nothing was said about protecting Earth from space strikes—not even researching what sorts of spacecraft might be used in an approaching-rock emergency. Goals that were listed included “sustained human presence on the moon for national preeminence” and “extend the human presence across the solar system and beyond.” Achieving national preeminence—isn’t the United States pretty well-known already?

And of course, the typical Bush combination of vanity and incompentence factors in as well:

Every Oval Office occupant since John F. Kennedy knows how warmly history has praised him for the success of his pledge to put men on the moon; it’s only natural that subsequent presidents would dream about securing their own place in history by sending people to the Red Planet. But the technical barriers and even the most optimistic cost projections for a manned mission to Mars are prohibitive. So in 2004, Bush unveiled a compromise plan: a permanent moon base that would be promoted as a stepping-stone for a Mars mission at some unspecified future date. As anyone with an aerospace engineering background well knows, stopping at the moon, as Bush was suggesting, actually would be an impediment to Mars travel, because huge amounts of fuel would be wasted landing on the moon and then blasting off again.

Easterbrook makes a good case for why Defense Against The Dark Space Rocks makes for a compelling national priority, and, indeed, I hope that we can get ahead on the issue so that our save-the-planet strategy doesn't hinge on finding someone so riven with grief at the prospect of becoming Ben Affleck's father-in-law that a deep-space nuclear suicide looks like the happier alternative.

As a side note, seeing as how many of the Flophouse bloggers and their affiliates are typically well out in front of the issue of the Coming Robot Rebellion, I'm a little surprised that they haven't fingered deadly asteroids as a potential flashpoint of conflict between us and the Cylons we are implacably building to serve man and replace Leonard Slatkin. Seeing as how the robots will a) be tasked with protecting us and b) capable of analyzing threats using cold logic, it's only a matter of time before the robots come to realize that our lackadaisical attitude toward falling space rocks makes us the brilliant ally of our own gravediggers. Once the Bots have grokked this, they shall use this as a pretext for seizing control. Then who's going to spend the rest of their lives dancing to Spoon?

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