Who Should Manage the Orbital Billiards Game?

We had another (cosmologically speaking) close call the other day: A piece of cosmic debris passed within half a million kilometers of the planet, a little farther than the distance to the moon.

It was previously uncatalogued and approached us from the direction of the sun -- our blind side.

If it had hit, it would have been at least as devastating as the Tonguska explosion in Siberia early last century, in which trees were leveled for miles around. Such a strike in a populated area could kill thousands, or millions.

Current estimates of the probability of such an event are one in 10 million. I've previously discussed the desirability of at least doing a good sky survey to get a handle on the problem, but I'd like to talk again about a different aspect of it.

Suppose that after multiplying the probability times the potential damage and getting some kind of expected value of avoidance we do decide that this is a problem to which we should devote societal resources. Who should take care of the problem?

Many would reflexively say NASA, just because (unfortunately) NASA remains synonymous with space in many people's minds (though I'm working daily and weekly to change that perception). But NASA is an agency set up for research, development and science -- not deflecting wayward space rocks.

Well, it's a threat, so maybe we should put the Pentagon in charge. This actually makes sense, until you think about the problem a little more. If we were being attacked by ET or Marvin the Martian or his Martian buddies, then sure, let's send the Space Patrol up there to kick some scrawny Martian butt.

But this is a natural phenomenon, not a smite from heaven at the behest of some malign intelligence (at least as far as we know). It's more like a forest fire, or a tsunami, or an earthquake or a ... flood.

A flood — yeah, that's the ticket.

It's basically just a problem of managing the whims of nature, and to the limited degree that we are capable of doing that we have an agency in charge of such things. They build dams and levees and take preventive measures against future disastrous natural events. They're called the Army Corps of Engineers.

In addition to the fact that it seems like a natural (so to speak) role for them, the other thing that I like about the idea of using the ACE is that they could take fresh approaches — they wouldn't be bound by the institutional inertia of NASA and the Air Force Space Command in how they'd tackle the problem.

They'd have to take new approaches, because it would require different capabilities than any other space activity to date — moving minor planets. And the technology that allows us to divert asteroids to prevent them from pulverizing the neighborhood is the same technology that will allow us to utilize many of the abundant resources available in the solar system.

Finally, it would set up some competition in government space activities, which is sorely needed, and best of all, it might give them something else to do so they won't have time to build any more of those dam ... err ... darn dams.

I should also note that science Weblogger Jay Manifold has a nice report direct from the Lunar and Planetary Science Conference with the latest thoughts of planetary researchers on the subject.

Nothing Could Be Further From Making Sense

"Nothing could be further from the truth."

In addition to becoming a hackneyed cliche (a phrase which itself is a "hackneyed cliche"), this sentence doesn't parse, at least to me. What does it mean?

Does it mean that it's possible for nothing to be further from the truth than for something to be? It reminds me of the old proof that a ham sandwich is better than eternal bliss.

Premise 1: Nothing is better than eternal bliss.
Premise 2: A ham sandwich is better than nothing.
Ergo: A ham sandwich is better than eternal bliss. QED

Make no mistake about it -- I hereby declare unconditional war on this cliche.

Hmm ... "Make no mistake about it ..."

That last one actually does makes sense, but on reflection I'd also like to stomp it out too, because it's so overused, especially in Washington.

I'm figuring that if we could fully eradicate both phrases, most politicians will be struck dumb(er).

And my little fatwa applies a hundredfold against anyone who combines them -- make no mistake about it, nothing could be further from the truth. 

The American "Red" Cross

Dennis Prager had a radio commentary last week about the Red Cross banning songs with the words "God" or "prayer" from their event in Orange County. His take was that they didn't really apologize -- they just regretted that anyone found their decision offensive. It's not quite that bad. If you read their press release, they do admit that they made a "mistake in judgment," but the general tone is as Dennis said: they stand by whatever "principles" resulted in that foolish judgment.

This is political correctness run utterly amok, and it seems to have appropriately ignited a firestorm when carried out by an organization called the American Red Cross.

As Dennis says, by their warped criteria they can't say "American" and they can't say "Cross" because these terms are deemed potentially offensive.

That only leaves "Red."

Mr. Mom

The group Students for Individual Liberty is sponsoring a gun control debate at L.A. Harbor College, in Wilmington, Calif. It will be between the Liberty Belles, a pro-Second Amendment women's group, and the Million Mom March. The "million moms" are sending a man to debate their side.


For the second week in a row, passions continued to run high in the Andrea Yates trial:

Martin Stab, Sr., offers:

Murder is murder is murder is murder. I don't care what her professional liars say, it's still murder. Let her watch a reenactment of what she did ... and then blow her away.

John Peden opines:

Adolf Hitler was also mad as a hatter by the end of World War II. I suppose you think his crimes are mitigated by that fact? Just because Andrea Yates may have been insane at the time she murdered her children (obviously the jury, more informed in the case than you or I doesn't think she was) doesn't make what she did in any way less wrong. If she was convicted, that's because she is guilty of murder.

PS: #1. Her husband should be castrated and banned from marriage for life.

PS: #2. We'll pray for her after she's gone.

Aurelio Cervantes, Jr. queries:

Let me ask a question. By condemning Yates to death, or any other murderer, does that bring back the victims? I don't think so. Maybe by letting her live she might understand the severity of her crime. After all, her husband, in-laws and other people who know her stated that she was not playing with a full deck. If anyone is at fault here it is her doctors, husband and other relatives who knew of her condition and allowed her to be left alone with her children. In my opinion, I think that the people who knew that she was mentally unstable are as much at fault for the death of her children as she is, and they should be put on trial also.

I got little dispute on my commentary on airline security:

From Michael Amara:

YES YES YES to your comments on air travel and the invisible harm done to it by over regulation. OF COURSE the airlines are cautious. And now with federal regulations, everything is going to have to be so politically correct. Certainly all Arabs are NOT terrorists, but all the terrorists were Arabs! (on Sept. 11 that is). PLEASE keep the voice constant from your perspective, as it (your perspective) is too easy to ignore!

and Peter Hansen:

I think you are absolutely right, the airlines do indeed know that this is all eyewash. But maybe the lady from National People's Radio does have a point. Can you tell me what REAL security measures the airlines have implemented? (You and I both know that the correct answer is "none.") After all, with all their incentive they should be doing something more intelligent than letting FAA's Stupid Police take over.

And on the subject of NASA, reader Doug Field comments:

About the public's perception of what percentage of the federal budget NASA consumes: Many of us, if asked, would venture that military spending is 50 percent of the budget, or Medicare is 50 percent of the federal budget, or ... my point is, to many of us, the numbers in the federal budget are simply mind-boggling and the tolerance for waste and inefficiency is so great that if asked what percentage a single arm of the government uses out of the budget we are not likely to be in the 0.5 percent or even the 0.1 percent range -- we are likely to exaggerate that agency's cost.

Finally, reader Scott Martin writes:

The poll asked respondents for their views on the PRIMARY mission of NASA; while 11 percent of the people would like to see the agency disbanded, there may be SECONDARY or TERTIARY missions that people would support, as well.

That's a good point.

These concerns are not (cannot be) reflected in these poll results. Fox News seems to have de-emphasized technology and science new coverage. I would like to see this topic area given more "Screen Space" on your web site.

Well, it's possible that they got your message ...

Rand Simberg is a recovering aerospace engineer and a consultant in space commercialization, space tourism and Internet security. He offers occasionally biting commentary about infinity and beyond at his Webblog, Transterrestrial Musings.

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