America Needs to Reach Out to the Stars by David Coker
EVANSVILLE, IN — The impact of a large, exploding meteorite over the city of Chelyabinsk, Oblast near the Ural mountain range in Russia and a near miss of Asteroid 2012 DA 14 the next day briefly captured the attention of world media outlets and scientists around the world in February.
As if visited by the Germanic god Thor, casting down gigantic thunderbolts upon the people of Chelyabinsk ... a chunk of rock weighing an estimated 10,000 tons with a 50-foot diameter ... exploded with a force of some 500 kilotons, roughly 20 to 25 times the blast of the bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki to end World War II.
As if visited by the Germanic god Thor, casting down gigantic thunderbolts upon the people of Chelyabinsk, some 1,100 people required medical attention largely from broken glass and assorted property damage related to the strange celestial event where a chunk of rock weighing an estimated 10,000 tons with a 50-foot diameter streaked through the clear morning sky, was traveling at a speed of 40,000 miles per hour and exploded with a force of some 500 kilotons, roughly 20 to 25 times the blast of the bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki to end World War II.
On the other hand, the near miss of the even larger asteroid, thought to be 150 feet long and weighing an estimated 140,000 tons, merely altered the solar orbital trajectory of the spinning celestial projectile. Largely composed of silicate materials, the asteroid which was first discovered by a Spanish astronomer last February, passed over some 17,000 miles from Earth's surface at its nearest point over the South Pacific Ocean region of Indonesia as it moved on a south-to-north trajectory.
Having been a student of science virtually all of my life, and, having witnessed many technological milestones achieved during the course of my brief lifetime, one cannot help but be awed by a few of them which readily come to mind. While Chuck Yeager broke the aviation sound barrier a few years before my birth in 1947, I was watching a black-and-white television set at my grandparent's home on Wimberg Road the moment recently deceased astronaut Neil Armstrong took his hallowed "one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind" in July 1969 onto the lunar surface.
Since then, advancements in integrated circuitry, semiconductors, global communication and all manner of scientific investigation literally boggles the mind. While the computer upon which I am writing this column is more powerful than the computer that accompanied Armstrong to the moon, we take for granted the Internet, a form of communication unheard of as recently as three decades ago. This technology allows me to send this article through a wireless router and cable modem to the newspaper offices, where the hard copy is set, papers are printed and the newspaper website is assembled from various sources.
The mapping of the entire human genome — the estimated 25,000 unit genetic alphabet which describes all of human life — was declared complete in April 2003 although further study continues. We have yet to discover the full meaning of this research in terms of medical advancements and an understanding of the genetics other species of life on earth.
In the realm of resource extraction, controversial new discoveries involving horizontal drilling and shale fracturing techniques have opened up vast new areas of discovery of oil and natural gas previously not known to exist on the North American continent.
At the same time, the advent of genetically altered crops being used for food sources have been met with derision by many who claim potential harm which could come from consuming such food, a lack of labeling and government regulation and their control by multinational corporations more preoccupied with profit than actually feeding a hungry world.
When it comes to space science, however, and future manned missions to outer space, the Obama administration has been getting low marks from the scientific community. In October, 2012, The Scientist magazine gave Obama a C- for the category of space science, noting that when the president announced a doubling of the budgets of "key agencies" including the National Science Foundation, the National Institute of Standards and the Department of Energy's Office of Science, NASA was left off "In fact," the magazine continued, "for the past 4 years, the Obama administration has been generally hands-off with regard to space science, which came as a surprise given the President's demonstrated emphasis on science and technology.
"The Obama administration has not focused on NASA science at all," says Bethany Johns, the John Bahcall Public Policy Fellow at the American Astronomical Society (AAS). "NASA's budget has stayed relatively flat."
The situation apparently changed for the worse last year when the administration released its fiscal 2013 budget in which Obama would see NASA's robotic planetary science program cut by some $300 million or 20 percent.
This drop in funding compelled the U.S. to drop out of upcoming missions to bring back samples from the surface of Mars, even after the relatively successful landing of Curiosity, the latest Martian rover, which captured the nation's imagination last summer.
In conversation recently, an enlightened colleague inquires, "what do we do with the information of this encounter and how will it affect human behavior on into the future?" Since the smaller meteorite appeared out of nowhere giving the residents of central Russia virtually no advanced warning, "should watching for these things become a portion of the future activities of NASA" which seems to remain a federal agency in search of a specific, clearly defined mission.
So, while our nation's commitment to future lunar and planetary investigation remains uncertain, these encounters with two celestial visitors from galactic parts unknown impresses upon us precisely how relatively fragile and vulnerable human life remains on this planet.