Commentary | A Critical Investment
Great civilizations have always expanded frontiers by exploring the unknown. For so many reasons it is vital that America continues to lead in space exploration and development. The space community understands how research in space technology, both on orbit and on the ground, benefits our daily lives. We know the importance of ongoing missions, whether unmanned on Mars, fully manned on the international space station, building the James Webb Space Telescope or progress in designing systems and programs for mankind’s next giant leaps.
The work, the challenges and the discoveries are ongoing. Each day brings new opportunities and new problems to solve. But the challenge often comes in communicating our message to the public, who too frequently do not recognize the importance of this work.
Occasionally it takes a dramatic event to demonstrate the importance of space research and exploration. We recently saw an example of this with the sudden increase in public awareness following the meteor that exploded in Russia. Near-Earth objects (NEOs) have been a subject the space community has been aware of for decades. But in order for the public to take notice, they needed to see it with their own eyes. Suddenly the public recognized that events in space can impact their lives.
I recently convened a hearing of the U.S. House Science, Space, and Technology Committee to discuss and examine potential space threats. It was the first of two hearings on government efforts to track asteroids and meteors and mitigate their impact.
This is a topic I had already planned on discussing this Congress, but recent events moved the issue to the front burner. On Feb. 15, the harmless flyby of an asteroid on the same day that an unforeseen asteroid exploded in Russia demonstrated that space is closer to us than we think.
Over the course of the hearing, it became clear that although we have accomplished much in this area, we still have a lot left to do. Technology to find and track NEOs continues to improve, but with new solutions come new problems. Improved technology enables us to see more potential threats from space, but we still lack the technology to do anything about them. This is the kind of problem and opportunity that repeatedly presents itself in the world of space science and research.
We learned during the hearing that NASA has found 95 percent of the asteroids nearest to Earth that are big enough to end civilization. But among those labeled as potential “city killers,” which may number up to 20,000, we have discovered less than 10 percent. And among those smaller than that, such as the Russian meteor, we have identified less than 1 percent.
While meteors and asteroids are suddenly all over the news, this issue is as old as our planet. I have a Time magazine issue from nearly 20 years ago where this topic was featured on the cover with the title “Cosmic Crash.”
According to NASA scientists, the two events of Feb. 15 were not related. The meteor over Russia caused significant damage, yet wasn’t tracked at all until it entered our atmosphere. The asteroid, on the other hand, was tracked by millions on their home computers as it flew by. Interestingly, the asteroid was initially discovered not by our government but by an amateur astronomer in Spain. However, one glaring similarity does exist between the separate events. Contrary to what Hollywood has portrayed, we currently have no capability to prevent or mitigate damage from near-Earth object strikes.
The United States has come a long way in its ability to track and characterize asteroids, meteors, comets and meteorites. But we still have a long way to go. And we have even further to go in knowing what to do when we discover one that may be harmful.
The broad scope of our efforts must include participation of governments, research institutions, industries and amateur astronomers in their backyard or on home computers.
Some space challenges require innovation, commitment and diligence. This is one of them.
For all of the attention and publicity the two events of Feb. 15 received, it was still too late for us to have acted to change the course of the incoming objects. We are in the same position today and for the foreseeable future unless we take action now to improve our means of detection.
I do not believe that NASA is going to somehow defy budget gravity and get an increase when everyone else is getting cuts. But we need to find ways to prioritize NASA’s projects and squeeze as much productivity as we can out of the agency’s current funds.
Exploring ways to protect the Earth from asteroids and meteors is a priority for the American people and should be a priority for NASA. We were fortunate that the events of February were simply an interesting coincidence rather than a catastrophe.
However, we still need to make investments and improvements in our capability to anticipate what may occur decades from now, or tomorrow.
Space exploration is an investment in our nation’s future — and often the distant future.
There’s a reason the National Air and Space Museum is the most-visited museum in Washington. Space exploration captures the minds of Americans and encourages future generations to dream big, work hard and shoot for the stars.
Unfortunately, our current space program lacks direction and a clear vision for the future.
As the Science, Space, and Technology Committee works to reauthorize NASA this spring, we will seek to provide the incentives for NASA to achieve the missions that inspire and benefit all mankind. I am committed to helping NASA find a modern mission that promotes space exploration and innovation.
The space community knows how important our nation’s efforts are in space. We don’t need sudden catastrophic events to remind us. Our nation must remain committed to progress and to ensuring NASA has the means to explore and innovate. By investing in space research and technology, we solve problems, create opportunities and inspire generations.
U.S. Rep. Lamar Smith is chairman of the House Science, Space, and Technology Committee.