You’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?
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.