Sunday, February 17, 2013

The Joy of Relevance

With the recent events in Russia associated with the surprise visit of a large meteor/small asteroid, I am beginning to see the political adjustments of space groups and companies to make use of the new supply of attention. I'm also seeing early signs of how fast this attention will die off. Which group will make best use of the opportunity remains to be seen, but this is how I'm seeing it. 

On the night of the event, CNN remained focused on the arrival of the damaged cruise ship with thousands of passengers who had suffered for days. On Twitter the conversation started mostly as skepticism, but quickly turned once the flood of tweets was flowing. Most tweets I saw underestimated the size of the rock, but did try to convey the emotions involved. Before long there was the inevitable attempt to associate related events and skepticism associated with each one, but the give and take appears to have produced a multi-voiced conversation that weeded out what was most unlikely. 

The next day the major news sites noticed and began to cover the event in their usual way, meaning they reached out to their pundits since very few couple put boots on the ground in the Urals. The pundits did mostly what they usually do in summarizing what was known and talking about meanings and what could come next. It was the pundits that laid the groundwork for how the public's attention will fizzle. 

Some pundits pointed out the reasonably well known statistic that large events are less common than the small, difficult to notice ones and that the Russian event could reasonably be expected to occur roughly once a century. Combine that with the fact that the last large one (Tunguska) happened about a century ago and we have a recipe for the typical statistical error most Americans make. They will jump to the conclusion that we won't see another of these until the 2100's and that there is nothing to worry about right now. 

That means there should be a race on by civil space groups to secure funding associated with asteroid hunting and remediation in the US and possibly elsewhere. As our public turns its collective attention elsewhere, they will do so comforted by the 'fact' that the professionals will deal with this issue. They will expect that some small amount of money can reasonably assigned to this threat and then return their attention to relevant matters. How much public money gets assigned to these tasks is important for while it will not be a large fraction of the civil space budget absent an imminent threat, it might be large enough to put a government group either in control of contractors doing the work or in direct competition with the private groups currently organized to hunt asteroids and exploit them. 

Another way to describe this risk to private efforts is that there is a risk that certain public efforts will find budgetary relevance from this event. Mitigation of this risk is important for the survival of the private efforts that depend on outside investment for funding. There is an existential risk here. For private efforts who have secured their funding, there is a longer range risk that might evaporate before they fly, but it might still be worth some attention. Delaying budget decisions into the future should work to the advantage of private efforts in mitigating this risk. The more time passes, the less useful the broken glass and injuries will be in giving relevance to people who will likely be far less efficient in dealing with the real risks. 

There is no doubt these rocks are dangerous to all of us and our civilization, but there is also no doubt that the solution to the issue is to get out there in economically meaningful ways. Whether one wants to blow them up, nudge them aside, or strip mine them down to dust the key to doing any of those repeatedly is to be out there and that requires a great deal of engineering experience our government can't possibly afford to purchase. We can't even afford it, so we will have to discover it as we solve every other type of problem we can imagine for a space-faring civilization.

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