Asteroids & Monkey Poop

August 29, 2013 by Bruce Landsberg

nasa asteroid 2You’ve probably heard about NASA’s latest plan to generate interest, and perhaps some funding, by catching an asteroid that is going to destroy the planet and bag it (paper or plastic?). They’ll double park in Earth orbit—perhaps where we can mine it for whatever might be useful. No contingency was mentioned if it gets hauled to the impound lot—the storage fees are bound to be staggering. Listening to the NASA administrator and other people in the space business, this rock snagging activity makes perfect sense. After all, the theory is that the dinosaurs were wiped out by a meteorite that kicked up more than a little dust resulting in catastrophic climate changes. Of course, that happened a few years back…but still…..

So what is the probability of a meteor strike? When asked on the video clip I saw, the spokesperson was deliberately vague. There was a big one that sailed low over Russia this year and did some damage—the Chelyabinsk meteor—and injured some 1,500 people from breaking glass. The last big one before that, but no injuries, was the Tunguska event in 1908—also in Russia. Coincidence?

nasa asteroid 1

From NASA’s own Jet Propulsion Lab website: “No human in the past 1,000 years is known to have been killed by a meteorite or by the effects of one impacting. (There are ancient Chinese records of such deaths.) An individual’s chance of being killed by a meteorite is small, but the risk increases with the size of the impacting comet or asteroid, with the greatest risk associated with global catastrophes resulting from impacts of objects larger than 1 kilometer. NASA knows of no asteroid or comet currently on a collision course with Earth, so the probability of a major collision is quite small.”

Yet someone is thinking we should spend billions?

Forgive me for wondering if this really is the best use of NASA funds. Now the extinction of life as we know it certainly does give one pause, and when compared to all the other things the government spends money on perhaps this should move up in the priority list. A few areas that have been reported are nearly $600,000 for research on why monkeys throw feces at each other or $198,000 spent to research whether social media programs such as Facebook, Twitter, or LinkedIn make people happy.

But moving out of government fantasy, general aviation has gotten very little, if any, attention in the last few decades from the aeronautics side of the space administration. The light aircraft technology, outside of avionics, has stagnated badly for a variety of reasons. Light aircraft remain too complicated and too expensive. We need some of that really good engineering and brainpower that NASA has. Areas to be addressed: noise, ease of construction, efficiency, engine technology (autogas—not 100LL—and Jet A). What about ease of operation? The car business will soon have autonomous vehicles running around the streets. Seriously—it will be viable in the next five to eight years. Unmanned aircraft systems (UAS), the polite term for drones, are making rapid strides. But light GA personal air transport? Not so much. It’s being outsourced to other countries because we don’t seem to be able to factory-build an affordable aircraft in the U.S. Why not?

Clearly, I’ve missed something—but between bagging asteroids, excrement-flinging monkeys, and happy tweeters, maybe it’s time for NASA to spend $100 million on improving real airplanes. I’m not a big fan of government handouts but a small hand up would sure help. GA pays lots of taxes and generates economic activity, and if we get healthy it can do some very good things for the country.

Bruce Landsberg
Senior Safety Advisor, Air Safety Institute

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  • Javier Roseney

    A couple of months ago an asteroid big enough to destroy a large city buzzed by the earth inside the moons orbit. In space terms, this was a very close call. These asteroids aren’t big enough to track months in advance and we will have very little time to react if one should be on a collision course with earth. We need to creat the technology to divert these on a moments notice.

  • Stephen Mann

    While Republicans like to poke fun at the titles of science grants, they never read the synopsis that explains the science goals. Excrement-flinging monkeys is a behavior study to try to determine what triggers aggression – something that plagues prisons but the inmates don’t like to be studied like caged monkeys.

    NASA is doing what it is supposed to do – Their mission statement: “Space Technology: rapidly develops, demonstrates, and infuses revolutionary, high-payoff technologies, expanding the boundaries of the aerospace enterprise.”

    So, yes it sounds like a lot of money to spend on a capture mission, but besides the huge increase in science , the commercial possibilities are endless. Just imagine if the captured asteroid had rare minerals that we need on Earth? What if there were a bountiful source of H3, an exceedingly rare isotope on Earth that has a huge potential for medical and energy uses? No private company will invest the billions of dollars needed to develop the technology with no guarantee of profit next quarter, but if the USA doesn’t, China or Russia will. Guess how many thousands of engineers and technical jobs that would mean.

    How many hundreds of experimental aircraft did the US government fund over the past century? We’re those all commercial successes? Not in the least, but the huge increase in knowledge gave us safer and more efficient aircraft. It spawned the aeronautical industry from Piper to Pan Am. NASA doesn’t have the people or facilities to do much of the development, they contract it to private industry. This is also called economic stimulus, another term, like science and education, that Republicans can’t stand. Just as your town may see great economic stimulation from a new research facility in their region, the USA realizes the same economic stimulation from these multi-billion dollar projects. That is why we do it. That is why China is making huge research and education investments today. Even Iran and Argentina do it. But you don’t want the USA to invest in science and technology?

    Of course the behavior scientists studying the feces-flinging monkeys would equally scoff at the funding of a study to learn why pilots keep doing stupid things that get them killed.

  • Daniel Lee

    “the extinction of life as we know it certainly does give one pause” Uh, yeah Bruce.

    In aviation as well as life in general a circumstance that could be fatal requires a plan to prevent it from happening. It’s not known when but it is for certain an asteroid will crash into the earch causing massive loss of human life.

    So our leaders have been greatly negligent in not making a plan to stop this.

  • Linda Moore

    I just love how Mr. Mann assumes that anyone who opposes wasteful science funding is a Republican. Real scientific. Hey, maybe you should write a grant proposal to determine how funding policy relates to political affiliation.

  • Tom Jones

    Dear Mr. Landsberg:
    I’m a former NASA astronaut and a current pilot and AOPA member. In poking fun at NASA’s planned next step in human spaceflight, you propagated a number of errors about the Asteroid Initiative and its Asteroid Redirect mission. As one involved in the original study in 2012 of this asteroid capture and return proposal, allow me to give you the straight story.
    –the mission would return a small (500-ton, 7-meter diameter) asteroid to lunar orbit (not Earth orbit)
    –the target would be a science and resource-rich asteroid, containing water, organic material, and valuable metals.
    –The target would NOT be an object that threatens Earth. 7-m wide asteroids cannot make it through our atmosphere. Instead it would be chosen for its raw materials and age, dating to the very beginning of the solar system, 4.6 billion years ago.
    –Astronauts would visit the captured asteroid in lunar orbit and return samples to Earth, meanwhile learning the skills needed to go deeper into space, to more distant asteroids, the Moon’s surface, and eventually to Mars.
    –Their visit would kick off at least 10 years of commercial and international visits to the asteroid. Its water could be turned into 100 tons of hydrogen and oxygen propellant. Opening space to commercial and industrial development could generate profits that might expand the U.S. economy into space, and pay for Mars expeditions. A wise investment, I think.
    –Working around and on an asteroid will teach us much about how to divert bigger objects from a future Earth collision. We WILL be struck again. An insurance policy is a good analogy: spending a billion or two over 10-20 years to develop effective means of asteroid diversion is cheap insurance compared to the widespread destruction an asteroid impact might inflict.
    –We can stop one variety of natural disaster: asteroid impacts. Let’s respond wisely (and appropriately) with the rehearsals and asteroid searches NASA is proposing, and ensure another 5-megaton Tunguska explosion (once very few centuries) doesn’t catch us napping. At the same time we’ll be moving along the path toward getting human explorers to the Moon, asteroids, and Mars.

    I will be happy to address AOPA audiences and you, Mr. Landsberg, on these asteroid exploration and planetary defense topics at your convenience. Visiting an asteroid should make for some great flying!

    Tom Jones
    Shuttle missions STS-59,-68,-80,-98
    Planetary Scientist
    AOPA Member

  • Fnur Schmala

    Ms. Linda Moore:

    Mr. Stephen Mann did NOT imply that “anyone who opposes wasteful science funding is a Republican.”

    In his rather thoughtful response, Mr Mann DID imply that anyone who opposes useful and often necessary science funding is a Republican.

    I believe that statistics (gathered through both scientific means and simple observational life experience) will bear that out.

  • Joe Killian

    Mr. Landsberg,
    I believe you are doing both Aviation and space science a significant dis-service with your sensationalist, inaccurate and ill-researched statements. And to see it here also does dis-service to AOPA. I object to your dis-service to all three entities.

    Nowhere has NASA stated or hinted that their target asteroid would be one otherwise destined to strike earth. That’s mostly because it’s not true. The implication that it should be ignored since it hasn’t happened (recently) makes me wonder if you look both ways before crossing the street (or if you preflight your aircraft). You have heard that an asteroid ended the dinosaur’s reign on earth and most other life at the same time?

    As it happens, I agree with you that “we” ought to put more resources into GA support. But I’d rather see it expressed in a way that didn’t appear to be an article borrowed from the Enquirer, National Review or Fox “News”.

  • Bruce Landsberg

    Thank you all for some reasoned responses ( mostly). The open discussion is essential and something that many would say is lacking in today’s dialogue.

    We are all passionate about our areas of interest which is obvious. My father was a research scientist, so I do understand the value of useful research. The question posed is where to draw the line when funds are limited – not so easy.

    We have reaped tremendous benefits from space exploration and experimental aircraft developed by the government. But if government is going to choose winning and losing industries (Light GA looks like the powers that be have decided it’s expendable) it would be nice to have a small place at the table. As I’ve written too many times, our value equation has not kept pace. Why? Should we go quietly into that dark night?

    As for the sensationalist headline – more than guilty as charged! But if it opens up the discussion and gets people thinking I’ll take the hit. Apathy and complacency is exceedingly dangerous both in flying and in setting policy.

    Thank you all!