This evening there was a bright flash across the sky. Orion was coming down on us in a hail of glory, as reported by the BBC. No, not Orion the constellation (wouldn’t that be a light show!?). Rather, the Orion crew capsule which we hope will take humans once again to the moon and then on to Mars.
We had just tossed it up there this morning to see how well it would burn coming back down. I kid you not. As it came back down at 32,000 km/hr and hit our atmosphere, its outer shell would heat up to 2000‘C. And the engineers at NASA wanted to confirm that the heat shield would protect any future astronauts (yes, it was empty on today’s mission). Just the same, re-entry made quite a pretty light show.
Meanwhile, on the other side of the globe, plans are underway to prevent a different kind of re-entry light show from ever happening. You see, they’re getting ready for Asteroid Awareness Day. The concern is that we are long overdue for a withering sucker punch from a wandering star, the kind that killed off the dinosaurs. And we need to do something about it. And some pretty big names are collaborating to bring this to the public’s attention … no less even than Brian May of the 70’s rock group Queen!
Okay, yes, this is a valid concern. But what really caught my eye in reading this article from the Guardian, though, was the hubris in some of the statements about mankind’s power to control this kind of thing. “We want to get a groundswell of support from people who understand that this is an issue that’s not only important, but one that we can change.” “A hundred years ago, if we got hit by an asteroid, that was just bad luck. We’ve now reached a point where if we get hit by a major asteroid it’s not bad luck, it’s bad planning, or worse, stupidity.”
Is it just me, or do any of you also have to wonder how they think there’s even the slightest little thing we could do about this? You can’t do the Bruce Willis thing in Armageddon … just fly out there and blow it up with a nuclear bomb … because all that does is turn a sniper bullet into a shot-gun blast. Alternatively, the article talks about pushing the asteroid off an earth-bound trajectory, either using rocket propellant or even “a “gravity tractor, where a spacecraft flies close to the asteroid and uses its meagre gravitational field to deflect the space rock“. That’s like trying to tow an aircraft carrier using a kayak!?
One of the biggest problems is simply getting to the asteroid far enough away from earth and actually landing on it. Our last experience with trying to doing something like that shouldn’t inspire too much confidence in our ability to do anything substantial towards warding off a cosmic baseball through earth’s window. Yes, we sent our space probe Rosetta up to a successful rendezvous with a passing comet, an achievement that evoked quite a bit of celebration and fanfare, as I previously wrote in a recent blog. But let’s look a little more closely at the logistics.
First, we had to send that space probe up 10 years ago in order for it to make contact just a few weeks ago. Hopefully we get that kind of advance warning as the next killer-comet homes in on us!?
After ricocheting around within our solar system, it finally caught up to the comet and dropped a lander on it with the goal of latching onto the surface and then sampling the area for signs of life. The landing was expected to be fool proof: it would use downward thrusting rockets to pin it down, then drive spiral cork screws on each of its feet into the surface, and fire a couple harpoons or grappling hooks to ensure a solid grasp. Sounds like a well thought out plan to me. Instead, the lander bounced off the surface a few times, skittered into a small ravine and toppled over onto its side … an unplanned orientation from which the screws, grappling hook and downward thrusting rockets would all be useless. And to add insult to injury, its final resting point was in the shadows of a boulder, which meant that its solar-powered batteries eventually fizzled out and it had to be put to sleep.
So much for our contingency planning and mastery of the intricacies of near-solar spaceflight.
So should we really be so confident as we turn a defiant face to the cosmos, and channel our best Pat Benatar with: “Go ahead and hit me with your best shot”.
(thanks Hamilton Musician for correcting me on the musician)
Nonetheless, they’re calling for telescopes all around the world to start scanning the heavens “to join the hunt for Earth-threatening asteroids”.
But would it really be better to know the certainty of impending doom … “we can now confirm that impact will take place next Thursday at 10:38 Greenwich Mean Time” … with all the debilitating fear and panic that such an announcement would generate? Or would it be better to remain ignorant of the exact moment of our demise? I mean, what really could we do about it?
I noted the same kind of technology-fueled bravado in another article this week in the BBC News. Stephen Hawking, one of our brightest lights, conveyed a warning about the likelihood that mankind could destroy itself in its development of artificial intelligence. In response, one of the die-hard proponents of that technology was quoted as saying: “I believe we will remain in charge of the technology for a decently long time and the potential of it to solve many of the world problems will be realised“.
So now we’re putting our faith in robots?
Jared Diamond, a renowned scientist and Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist, in The World Until Yesterday, surmised on the various functions of religion, trying to explain why religion has been so prevalent throughout human societies past and present. He proposed one of those functions was to explain things and thereby “defuse our anxiety over problems and dangers beyond our control”. I would say the same thing about science. We humans can too easily deceive ourselves into thinking that we have it all under control. Knowledge is power, we tell ourselves. Archimedes said: “Give me a lever long enough and a fulcrum on which to place it, and I shall move the world.”
By now we should have learned something that is a central theme in the Bible: that we’re not self-sufficient, nor in control. We’re still pretty feeble and limited. We are not yet gods, and we should not be so quick to shrug off the benevolent attentions of a Divine hand.
To those of us who feel that they are the masters of their own destiny, Jesus gave this parable:
The ground of a certain rich man yielded an abundant harvest. He thought to himself, ‘What shall I do? I have no place to store my crops.’ Then he said, ‘This is what I’ll do. I will tear down my barns and build bigger ones, and there I will store my surplus grain. And I’ll say to myself, “You have plenty of grain laid up for many years. Take life easy; eat, drink and be merry.”’ But God said to him, ‘You fool! This very night your life will be demanded from you. Then who will get what you have prepared for yourself?’ This is how it will be with whoever stores up things for themselves but is not rich toward God. (Luke 12:16-21)
Just some thoughts on the merit of putting full faith in our own accomplishments at the cost of pursuing more meaningful and long-lasting benefits.