Feb 012010
Authors: Seth Anthony

Last week, the future of the human race took a few interesting and largely unnoticed twists –– not because we developed an artificial intelligence bent on destroying mankind, or made contact with alien life –– but because of much less interesting machinations within the United States’ federal budget process. Several recent decisions may, in fact, have impacts on our long-term survival as a species.

The first is the prospect for human spaceflight. The most recent proposed budget for NASA, although increasing the agency’s funding by more than $1 billion, isn’t nearly enough to continue the development of the Constellation program and Ares rockets that were planned to replace the space shuttle and take Americans back to the moon and beyond.

The broader impact is hardly being reported: When the space shuttle fleet is retired in the next few years, without another direction, President Obama will have essentially closed the door on America’s manned spaceflight program.

In the near future, at least, exploration and colonization of worlds other than our own will be led by other nations. The next human to set foot on the moon and the first to set foot on Mars is more likely to be Chinese than American. 

Many argue that instead of focusing on the selfish goal of America beating China to Mars, we should spend more time solving problems here at home, such as education, poverty and hunger. There’s much truth to that. And yet, there’s an even longer view to consider. 

In the long run, our sun will expand to become a red giant star; in fewer than a billion years, the Earth will become uninhabitable for life was we know it. If that doesn’t motivate us to not only solve our own problems, but start to look outside our own planet and solar system, then perhaps shorter-term threats to human civilization will. 

In January, a report by the National Research Council concluded that efforts to detect and divert asteroids headed toward the planet earth are lagging. Congress has set a goal for NASA to detect 90 percent of near-Earth objects greater than 140 meters in size, by the year 2020. However, by allocating only $4 million per year toward this program, the best estimate is that this goal will be reached perhaps by 2030, a decade behind schedule.

It’s true that civilization-threatening impacts like those that caused the extinction of the dinosaurs may occur on average only every few million years. However, if one were eminent, the NRC concluded that we haven’t developed either the very achievable technology or the mechanisms for international cooperation necessary to divert such an impact.

Furthermore, they argued, current asteroid detection programs avoid the significant threat of smaller asteroids. Regional mythology contains references to the Hiroshima-sized blast which created the Kaali craters in Estonia about 600 B.C. Perhaps the best known impact event is the Tunguska event in 1908, which leveled nearly a thousand square miles of uninhabited forest in Siberia. Imagine the devastation if impacts these occurred over a modern world city.

These potential impactors, only tens of meters in size — not big enough to wipe out life on earth, but still big enough to cause massive regional devastation and years of impact on weather (think worldwide famines) — are hardest to detect, but would be easiest to divert.

If I were president, or a member of Congress, my first priority, before tackling the many urgent issues facing our own planet, would be to make sure that we had our eyes focused on the future, encouraging the long-term public, private and international efforts necessary to ensure the long-term survival of the human race. 

These recent, short-sighted decisions by our political leaders — the effective cancellation of Americans’ manned spaceflight efforts and the underfunding of asteroid detection — lead me to conclude that, just like any prudent investor, we need to diversify our efforts. The survival of the human race is too important an effort to be left merely to our government.
Seth Anthony is a chemistry graduate student. His column appears Tuesdays in the Collegian. Letters and feedback can be sent to letters@collegian.com._

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