The Politics of Preventable Disasters

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By now everyone has heard about, and probably actually heard the meteor that impacted Russia the morning of Feb 15th. It might bring to mind a certain Bruce Willis movie, or thoughts of the Tunguska event. Or, for @BadAstronomer, #omgweareallgoingtodie!

After all these thoughts pass through, it’s worth considering what we as a species should be doing in order to reduce the risk of more catastrophic encounters. Amateur astronomers have been very active in identifying near earth objects. As a general rule though, it is still the domain of government space agencies to compile asteroid surveys and make projections on future impact risks. It’s also, ostensibly, our government’s job to create plans and develop the technologies to prevent future catastrophic impact events.

Some members of Congress, aka the people actively working to destroy our economic well being, have stated they want to talk about this as soon as possible. If you’re going to hold your breath for congressional action, you’ll expire long before the next major meteor event. Personally, I’m hoping other governments are going to be slightly less dysfunctional in their response. I’m looking at you, Russia!

We must take action now… awe, look at the kitty!

Humans as a species are rather short sighted. We devote a great deal of attention and discussion to the most recent crisis, whether that’s a tragic school shooting or a natural disaster. The problem is, we talk about it, we form some committees to talk about it some more, we invite the experts to talk to use about it, and then the next crisis happens, real or politically manufactured, and the last one is no longer a priority. This is pretty basic human psychology – we can only effectively deal with a handful of priorities at any one time. The problem with that of course is, if we don’t actually solve the problem that caused the crisis, then we get to do this exercise all over again the next time that crisis occurs.

Of course, there is a next time here. There are a hell of a lot of big mean rocks zipping around our solar system. If you ever look up at the moon with a telescope, you’ll see more than a few craters. In fact, you don’t need to go too far on earth to see some pretty massive impact craters. I’m guessing we only get so many warning shots before the universe lobs a big one our way again. The general prediction is to have a rock about this size impact about every hundred years. Russia seems to have gotten the short straw on this one, since the last major event was Tunguska in 1908.

“The dinosaurs became extinct because they didn’t have a space program. And if we become extinct because we don’t have a space program, it’ll serve us right!” – Larry Nevin

This takes actual leadership. Maybe from that guy in the Oval Office. Maybe he and Congress can agree that we don’t want to suffer an otherwise preventable natural disaster?

No? Oh well, it was worth $0.02 out of my dollar, which is almost 4 times the funding that NASA gets.

Just to punctuate this for me personally, I had the pleasure of observing a bright meteor last night over Seattle. Today there are more reports of meteors from other locations around the world. Space is a lot more crowded than you might think, and we seem to be hitting more traffic than usual.

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