Asteroid dust, anyone?

Last Thursday, Oct. 30, the NASA spacecraft Osiris-Rex sampled about four pounds (2 kilograms) of material from an asteroid named Bennu.  If the rest of the mission goes as well as it has so far, in October of 2023 the sample container will land in the Utah desert, bringing the largest amount in history of asteroid material to earth.  Japanese space probes have previously succeeded in sampling pieces of asteroids, but never as much material as we will get from Bennu.

In the nature of such projects, planning probably began more than a decade ago.  This is the type of project that scientists devote entire careers to, and I'm sure that dozens or hundreds of people have been working on it for most of the twenty-first century so far.  The spacecraft was launched from Cape Canaveral in September of 2016, and spent about two years catching up to Bennu, whose orbit lies partly inside that of the Earth.

In fact, one reason Bennu was chosen as a target is that there is about a 1 in 2700 chance that it will collide with Earth some time in the next ten years.  Bennu is a small asteroid by asteroid standards, only about 490 meters (1600 feet) across.  But it's big enough to do plenty of damage if it entered our atmosphere.  An old rule from combat is "know your enemy," so if we find ourselves scrambling to avoid Bennu's wrath and want to do something about it, knowing what it's made of will help.

Once the spacecraft reached the asteroid, it went into orbit about a mile away.  Even an object as small as Bennu has enough gravity to enable a satellite to orbit in that fashion.  Then, in a horribly tricky 36-hour process, Osiris-Rex crept up to the surface and snatched a four-pound sample and put it in a can to return it to Earth.  And NASA has pictures to prove it.

The entire project, including the launch rocket, cost under $1 billion.  That is chump change compared to the least expensive manned mission the U. S. undertook, Project Mercury back in the early 1960s, which cost about $2 billion in 2020 dollars.  My point is that if you just leave the people at home, you can do extremely impressive things in space for a whole lot less money.

What do we get for that $1 billion?  Well, if you like to put it this way, the world's most expensive dirt, at $250 million a pound.  Space exploration and astronomy seem to be the main beneficiaries these days of what is left of pure-science curiosity.  That is why the U. S. government found the wherewithal and the consistency to fund the Osiris-Rex project from its inception in the early 2000s to its completion sometime in 2023. 

And that is appropriate, because from my worm's-eye view teaching young people who are technically inclined (electrical engineers), many of the best of them seem to seek out space-related jobs.  One of the best electromagnetics students I ever had went to work initially for Boeing, and she is now at Blue Origin, the spaceflight company founded by Amazon founder Jeff Bezos.  And just last week, I was talking with a former grad student of mine who wants to go into aerospace engineering or science to develop space probes. 

In terms of frontiers of exploration, it makes sense to look upward, as there's a lot of room out there and a lot of things to find out.  Every age has what philosopher Richard Weaver calls its "metaphysical dream."  This is not necessarily a religious thing.  But just as most of us need some basic reason to get out of bed in the morning, a society needs something to look forward to and hope for.  Astronomy and especially space exploration, both manned and unmanned, seem to satisfy that need in a way that few other current enterprises do.

While interest and pride in unmanned projects like Osiris-Rex is justified, another point to be made is that if exploration is all you want to do, leaving the people at home is by far the most efficient way to do it.  This argument does not go down well with the space-as-manifest-destiny crowd, who believe that Earth is to space as Europe was to America:  a place we'll simply look back on and say yes, we came from there, but we're glad we're here now. 

The danger in making space the ultimate destiny of mankind is the same danger that any other utopian project brings.  For whatever reason, it seems that if people convince themselves that there is a perfect future out there for them, infinitely better than anything we have now, they begin to justify all manner of wickedness and injustice in the present for the sake of the ideal perfect future that somehow never arrives.  This sort of thing is most easily observed in the history of Marxism, which led to the death of millions on the altar of the perfect workers' paradise that never got here. 

Maybe you think that hoping to colonise other planets or space in general can't cause serious problems here on Earth.  Well, think of it this way.  Marriage is supposed to be a lifelong total commitment of two souls to each other.  But if one of the parties starts thinking, "Well, things are fine now, but if (he, she) gets old and floppy, I can always find somebody else," just the harbouring of that thought can cause invisible corrosion of the relationship that can eventually lead to a total rupture.

Once we start looking at Earth not with the eyes of a homeowner, but with the eyes of a renter who has no long-term commitment to the upkeep of the property, you can see what problems might arise.  Everybody involved in Osiris-Rex deserves praise for their persistence, skill, and commitment to a long-term project that could benefit all of humanity, and not just a few space scientists.  By the same token, let's not look on Earth as just a starter apartment, but as the place where humanity has committed to stay and live peaceably and responsibly as long as we can.

Karl D. Stephan is a professor of electrical engineering at Texas State University in San Marcos, Texas. This article has been republished, with permission, from his blog, Engineering Ethics, which is a MercatorNet partner site. His ebook Ethical and Otherwise: Engineering In the Headlines is available in Kindle format and also in the iTunes store. 


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