A 1,260-pound spacecraft, traveling at 13,680 miles per hour, self-destructed on Monday by breaking through — on purpose – in an asteroid moon called Dimorphos.
Why it matters: The $324.5 million program, known as DART, is just one part of NASA’s wider project known as “planetary defense” — which, even now that DART is largely over, will continue to exist. funded at a cost of $142.7 million per year.
Yes but: The $142.7 million is $55 million Lake then NASA asked; Congress tells NASA to hurry and spend more money, faster, to achieve its mandate to identify 90% of near-Earth objects more than 140 meters in diameter.
The big picture: This is the kind of spending that governments would be bad at.
- a 2010 report by the National Research Council (NRC), beautifully titled “Defending Planet Earth,” admits that the roughly 100 lives per year lost on average from asteroid impacts are probably “trivial in the general scheme of things.”
- The catch, of course, is that the average hides huge variation — and that a big impact could pose an existential risk. (Just ask the dinosaurs.)
The problem of asteroid impacts, the NRC concludes, is simultaneously “extremely important” and “extremely rare”.
- Asteroid 2005 ED224, for example, has a diameter of only 50 meters – about the same size as the Tunguska event from 1908, and much smaller than anything NASA is looking for. It is the nearest thing to a current risk that Earth faces, but when it passes our planet on March 11, there is only a 0.0002% chance of a collision.
What they say: Charitable foundations are needed, Stanford professor Rob Reich wrote in a highly influential 2013 essayinsofar as they “take on the lengthy, risky policy experiments that no one else will.”
- “Government officials in a democracy don’t have an incentive structure that rewards risky experiments over a long time horizon; they need to quickly show results from spending public dollars to get reelected.”
Between the lines: The best outcome of the planetary defense budget—essentially a billion-dollar insurance policy of unknowable use—is that it is wasted and never needs to be put to the test.
- If it’s used, the politicians who funded it will almost certainly all be dead long ago. And yet those same politicians have spent the past ten years… joined forces down the aisle to provide the planetary defense project with a nine-figure annual budget.
It comes down to: The long-term project in Philanthropy is devoted to the thesis that wealthy individuals can and should intervene to protect the planet from risks that governments are too short-sighted to handle.
- The DART program is an implicit rebuke of that statement, especially since there is no chance that it would ever have been funded through private philanthropy.