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November 17, 2006
Bruce Willis, Call Your Agent

It sounds like a story right out of the movie Armageddon, but without the bad dialogue and the mind-numbingly bad love story between Ben Affleck and Liv Tyler. NASA wants to start building spaceships and training crews to attack killer asteroids from outer space:

The US space agency is drawing up plans to land an astronaut on an asteroid hurtling through space at more than 30,000 mph. It wants to know whether humans could master techniques needed to deflect such a doomsday object when it is eventually identified. The proposals are at an early stage, and a spacecraft needed just to send an astronaut that far into space exists only on the drawing board, but they are deadly serious. A smallish asteroid called Apophis has already been identified as a possible threat to Earth in 2036.

Chris McKay of the Nasa Johnson Space Centre in Houston told the website "There's a lot of public resonance with the notion that Nasa ought to be doing something about killer asteroids ... to be able to send serious equipment to an asteroid.

"The public wants us to have mastered the problem of dealing with asteroids. So being able to have astronauts go out there and sort of poke one with a stick would be scientifically valuable as well as demonstrate human capabilities."

A 1bn tonne asteroid just 1km across striking the Earth at a 45 degree angle could generate the equivalent of a 50,000 megatonne thermonuclear explosion. Attempting to break it up with an atomic warhead might only generate thousands of smaller objects on a similar course, which could have time to reform. Scientists agree the best approach, given enough warning, would be to gently nudge the object into a safer orbit.

The so-called "planet killer" scenario seems somewhat unlikely, although not out of the question. Obviously asteroids have hit the Earth in the past, and have significantly changed the environment as a result. Unfortunately, at the moment we have neither the technology to get to an asteroid in time nor a clear idea about how to keep one from hitting the planet. Many theories abound, but none have any real testing, and a test failure near the planet could inadvertently send one towards Earth that otherwise might have missed.

That's not the big story here, however. NASA wants a big new project to capture the public's imagination. Bush announced a new lunar challenge in January 2004, an announcement that produced more yawns than dollars. A moon shot has been done, after all, and many skeptics wonder what purpose would be served by going back except to say we did. Just as in the days of Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo, taxpayers don't see any short-term benefits in either a lunar mission or an expedition to Mars, and so have no reason to spend a trillion or so dollars in pursuing them. After all, it's not as though we have extra money laying around these days.

However, everyone understands what it means to save the planet. Bruce Willis died to save us all, as did the movie itself. Morgan Freeman had to run a country considerably narrower than the one he was given in Deep Impact. Killer Asteroids from Outer Space (or KAFOS, as I like to call 'em) outweigh moon rocks not just in mass but in publicity. This kind of mission could find much more political support and might expedite the development of a true space plane, a project on the boards since the Space Shuttle first began its missions. The training and tactics could help develop more exploration projects in the future. And the money will roll back into NASA.

My father, the Admiral Emeritus, worked on the space program from Mercury to the Shuttle, and it's always been a source of great pride not just for him but for the whole family. That was a wonderful mission, and it produced techological innovations that greatly improved American lives. I'm in favor of space missions that make sense, and believe space exploration will be a large part of our future. If KAFOS gets us there, then great -- but let's make sure we're tailoring the budget and the mission to the real threat, and not some hysterics intended to sell books and buy tax money.

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Posted by Ed Morrissey at November 17, 2006 4:57 AM

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