Now that the Cold War is over, the sky is falling!

Kevin Kearney

April 17, 1992|By Kevin Kearney

DON'T WE already have enough to worry about? There's global warming, a hole in the ozone layer, AIDS, the deficit, radon, killer bees in Texas, walking catfish in Florida . . .

Now they tell us we've got to worry about asteroids, too.

Asteroids, as you may recall from old Star Trek episodes, are the crumbs left over from creation. Asteroids are bigger than meteors and smaller than planets -- sort of mid-size lumps of rock that or bit the sun and that are anywhere from half a mile to 600 miles in diameter. And this very minute, somewhere out in the black void of space, there could be one with our number on it, hurtling inexorably toward Earth.

If there's a collision, it won't be pretty, according to a NASA team of scientists who are raising the alarm. Agriculture would be destroyed, civilization would be wiped out and who knows how long your cable TV would be on the fritz.

It's a little depressing, if you think about it. You can scrimp and save, walk the straight and narrow, slave at a career, send your kids to school, build your dream house, never cheat on your taxes, and then one day -- bam! -- an asteroid drops out of the sky, probably just when you've finally paid off your mortgage.

What a relief to find out that experts in the field of asteroid avoidance are aware of the threat and have already come up with a study on the subject and a couple of suggestions in a report commissioned by Congress.

The first thing we've got to do, they advise, is set up an "asteroid warning system" -- a network of ground-based telescopes designed to scan the heavens for renegade asteroids. Next -- this is the fun part for the scientists -- we've got to put in place an "asteroid interceptor system." Details on this are a bit sketchy at present, although space-based "Star Wars" type weapons have been mentioned.

Now for the really bad news. All of this could cost us billions. Never mind that the scientists admit there's no consensus on the nearness of the threat. In fact, their guess on the historical frequency of asteroid impact ranges from once every 300,000 years to once every million years. In other words, they haven't exactly pinned it down. It's also a way of saying we could spend astronomical sums on high-tech systems and never, in our lifetimes or in the foreseeable future, have to use them.

The defense industry finally has something to cheer about, however. For a while there, with the Soviet Union no longer posing a threat, the industry had no reason to continue burning up taxpayers' money on research and development for weapons systems that may or may not work against a threat that may or may not develop.

This asteroid scare is gliding in on a classic "Chicken Little effect," named after that famous barnyard paranoid in the children's story whose immortal words are as meaningful today as when they were first squawked: "The sky is falling! The sky is falling!" Let's hope America's taxpayers don't fall for this industry boondoggle, too.

Kevin Kearney writes from Santa Cruz, Calif.

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