Give Us Some Space

The final frontier is nigh.
The final frontier is nigh. // Creative Commons

There’s been a lot on our minds as summer turns to fall. Around the world, conflicts roil. A thousand geopolitical ties wear thin. At home, our political system is as gummy and depressing as usual. Economic ruin threatens again. Here in New Haven, we deal with our own quotidian dramas. It’s September: Another summer gone, just like that. Some of us have just arrived on campus for the first time, some of us for the last time. Everyone must find a way to balance past, present and future in a way that quiets, at least for the moment, the nebulous uncertainty that whips up around us like autumn wind. Moreover, lots to think about.

But there is one issue that is especially important. It looms over us all, informing each and every one of our choices. I’m sure most of you will know instinctively what I’m talking about. But for those of you who don’t, I’m talking about the NASA’s plan to lasso an asteroid.

The elephant in the room, I know. I’ll pause to let anyone who hasn’t gasped yet go ahead and do that.

Now, here’s how Project Asteroid Party 2K20, as it’s officially known, will work. In 2018, they’re going to send an unmanned spaceship into space. Then, once it’s in space, they’re going to move it around so it’s near an asteroid (which presumably is hurtling toward Earth or something). Once the spaceship is near the asteroid, some magical thing will happen with physics and gravity and the asteroid will be pushed into orbit around the Earth-moon system. At some point in the 2020s, human astronauts will go hang out on the asteroid to do some science, and also presumably to have some fun asteroid times.

To me, that sounds fun. And maybe there’s even a good scientific reason to do it! I don’t know — I was too lazy to look that up. (Ed. Note: Update — there is one.) But, my goodness, is it a cool idea. The ability to move objects slightly in space is very important to NASA’s mission of doing space things. The skills NASA learns from jiggling this asteroid could be presumably used on everything from other galaxies to elephants floating freely in space.

But as usual, the boo-birds over in Congress have different ideas. In July, the Science Committee in the House of Representatives voted along party lines to nix Project Funky Asteroid Dance, as it’s officially known. Republicans, always the life of the party, controlled the committee and voted down the initiative. Rep. Steven Palazzo of Mississippi called the project “a costly and complex distraction.” Ouch. Don’t let space hear you say that, Rep. Palazzo.

Project Asteroid! Asteroid! Asteroid! Asteroid! Asteroid!, as it’s officially known, isn’t dead yet — it awaits a vote by the full House. But don’t get your hopes up.

The House’s gridlock is disheartening when it affects policies that don’t really matter to most people, e.g., food, taxes and the government’s ability to function. But when Congress blocks a project so relevant — central, even — to our daily lives, like slightly altering the orbit of an asteroid, it makes me mad. They’re ignoring all the amazing practical implications of asteroid-capture, and the bright future that awaits us if we follow through.

I, for one, can see a future in which we all live on asteroids and just look at Earth. A future where my kids can play in the backyard in their spacesuits and capture all the little asteroids they want. A future where there are two asteroids in every garage, and one in every pot. A future, moreover, where we feel, with great certainty, that asteroids are the most important objects in the universe.

That’s what the House of Representatives is giving up on — that beautiful dream. To think that we might not spend billions of dollars to slightly disturb the orbit of a large rock is as upsetting as it is outrageous. What kind of large-space-rock-free future do we want to pass on to our children?

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