Asteroid Risk Mitigation, Anyone?

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Space communism

The Association of Space Explorers (ASE) wants the United Nations to deflect asteroids. A recent announcement seeks U.N. responsibility for deflecting asteroids and an international treaty to this effect. The ASE consists of over 300 men and women from 30 countries who have completed "at least one orbit of the Earth in space (as defined by the FAI) in a spacecraft."

The latest announcement represents a sharpened focus and extension of the political position expressed in their October 14, 2005 open letter, which stated: "Given the eventuality of such cosmic collisions and the emerging human capability to actually prevent them, the Association of Space Explorers calls on the governments and relevant international organizations of the world, and their respective leaders, to acknowledge this challenge and accept the responsibility for prevention of these most devastating of all natural disasters."

Seeing the earth from space has apparently encouraged these modern circumnavigators to view social-political-economic matters from a centralized perspective. This is expensive indoctrination in defective belief. Having previously benefited from their national political organizations, why not move up a notch? Having formed a select society that crosses borders, why not importune the world’s most visible political organization?

Is the Association of Space Explorers (ASE) thinking that space belongs to all mankind? Have they adopted a basic communist attitude as to unappropriated resources? Do they believe that space belongs to all and is for all? Yes, to all three questions. When it comes to space, they are communists, not private property advocates and not Lockeans. One of their stated purposes is "to unify the efforts of astronauts and cosmonauts to reinforce international cooperation in the exploration and use of space for the benefit of mankind."

Another of their purposes is to create a public/private partnership: "The ASE effects cooperation with governmental and non-governmental organizations in implementing joint efforts for the use of space." In practice this means crowding out private efforts with government efforts, creating dependent space industries, stifling innovation, stifling competition, and using public funds for private ends. The road to chaos is paved with good intentions merged with government.

The U.N. a wrong-way turn

How can making the U.N. the focal point of space efforts do anything but harm the exploration, development, and use of space? In seeking international cooperation through the U.N., the ASE is asking for an inefficient space cartel, an umbrella political-bureaucratic organization that will control space efforts. Why bother? The U.N. will flounder around, passing rules, absorbing time and resources. It will create uncertainty in the existing and future efforts of state and non-state actors. Will it do anything directly on its own? If so, to whom will it be responsible? Certainly not to U.S. citizens acting either as voters or consumers. As for producers, the U.N. will toss a monkey wrench into the developing private space industries. Isn’t the current situation of state dominance of space programs already bad enough?

The ASE assumes that space cooperation will not occur without the involvement of states and the U.N. This assumption is false. Cooperation arises naturally within and among all sorts of private capitalist activities. Competitors often cooperate when it is in their interests to do so and when the state does not chill such cooperation in the name of promoting competition. The number of joint ventures, strategic alliances, mergers, partnerships, equity and debt investments, and domestic and foreign inter-company investments, is huge. The Baseball Network between ABC, NBC, and major league baseball is not the only one, nor is the Boeing collaboration with Lockheed-Martin on satellites. There is no reason to believe that cooperation will not emerge naturally if states ended their dominant positions in space enterprises.

Statists wrongly assume that cooperation and competition are mutually exclusive. When they think that cooperation has clearly visible benefits, they look for non-competitive statist solutions. But there is a world of difference between freely-arising cooperation that blooms naturally as an accompaniment to competition, and the corrupted cooperation between states whose very existence depends on force and power.

The ASE also assumes, with some experience to support it, that asteroid deflection will not occur unless states and/or the U.N. become involved. Here they are correct. But the reason (see below) is that asteroid deflection does not pay. If it did pay, there would be no need for states of the U.N. to be involved.

The asteroid threat

The space fliers and explorers of the ASE pass themselves off as experts on the risks of a catastrophe arriving from outer space; but they are far more likely to be biased observers and commentators than scientists who have no space axe to grind. Robert Roy Britt writes for Live Science. In an article posted two years ago, he pointed out many pertinent facts. At that time, he gave the lifetime odds (over one’s entire life) of an asteroid hit as 1 in 200,000 or perhaps as little as 1 in 500,000. Death by lightning has odds of 1 in 84,000, by legal execution 1 in 59,000, by air travel 1 in 20,000, by fire 1 in 1,100, by falling down 1 in 246, and by suicide 1 in 121. He pointed out that there are those who have held to asteroid death odds of 1 in 50,000, however, until more asteroids are catalogued and their movements accounted for. Even at 1 in 50,000, the risk is very low. Famine, disease, and war are the biggest killers on the planet and occur constantly. Two of these are preventable, and one can be ameliorated.

The ASE is making noises about an asteroid 140 meters long called Apophis. Astronomers say that it has a chance of striking the earth on April 13, 2036. This will be a Palm Sunday. The odds noised about in the recent spate of articles are 1 in 45,000 that it hits the earth. It’s supposed to miss us by 20,000 miles. If it does hit, the damage could be large, depending on many factors. If it landed in the Pacific Ocean, a likely target, it would create 50-foot tidal waves lasting an hour. The odds of being killed are far lower, as Britt notes, and they vary depending upon where one lives. In the worst eventuality that Apophis hit the earth, the area of impact would by the time it headed for earth be pinpointed. People could then evacuate that area, and the death toll could be greatly reduced. The stated odds do not take human action into account.

Popular Mechanics ran an article in December on the threat posed by Apophis. It provides much more detail on the upcoming fly-by. In 2013 the asteroid will swing by the earth in "prime position for tracking" and then the data will provide evidence as to whether in 2029 the asteroid will pass at a safe distance or not. If it hits exactly one place, it enters a gravitational field and orbit that creates a collision in 2036. According to Steven Chesley, analyst at Jet Propulsion Laboratory, "There’s no rush right now, but if it’s still serious by 2014, we need to start designing real missions."

There are several existing technologies for deflecting an asteroid of this size. But the fact is that the path of this asteroid can’t now be predicted with enough accuracy to know enough to nudge it one way or another. Without such knowledge, a deflection effort could push the asteroid into a collision course, rather than away from it. A path prediction has to account for currently unaccounted for forces that influence motion such as solar radiation, relativity, the gravitational attractions of other space objects, and the Yarkovsky Effect (radiation of more heat from one side of the asteroid than another.) The latter effect alone over the course of decades can push an asteroid miles off course.

Private space solutions

Backyard astronomers have been instrumental in tracking asteroids, including Apophis. Paul Allen has bankrolled the successful private suborbital space flight of SpaceShipOne. Massive amounts of capital criss-cross the earth in search of profitable ventures. The pool of skilled physicists, engineers, and managers across the earth is very large. All the elements are in place for ventures, profit or non-profit, but definitely private in origin, conception, and execution, that will make use of space in ways that benefit mankind. But these projects need not be owned and operated by all of mankind, (which is impossible anyway), for the benefit of all of mankind, (which is also impossible.) We do not need space communism.

The risks of being killed or damaged by an asteroid vary from place to place and person to person. The perceptions of these risks vary among people. The values of these risks to individuals vary dramatically. Some nations with large coastlines or population densities near coastlines face higher risks. It is neither fair nor economically efficient for all the people of the earth to pay for earthwide programs that insure a subset of people who by chance or choice expose themselves to greater risk. The rule should be to carry one’s own weight and not be forced to carry the weight of others. The U.S. already subsidizes people who live in areas prone to flood. A worldwide asteroid deflection program will subsidize whole regions of people who live in areas prone to tidal waves from asteroid collisions.

To confront this diversity of risk, risk assessment, and risk valuation, with the U.N. is as absurd an idea as one is likely to encounter. The states within the U.N. routinely mismanage their own affairs, mis-estimate risks, exaggerate risks, make promises they can’t keep, blunder in every possible way, waste huge amounts of capital, kill people, delay, do not know what they are doing, lack any expertise except in holding and keeping power, and fail at the most elemental level of record-keeping and accounts. To lift space concerns up one level into a corrupt bureaucracy that battened off the oil-for-food program in Iraq is totally ridiculous. And this is what the Association of Space Explorers in all seriousness and all apparent naïveté proposes to do.

As always, we need to worry about the longer-term effects of combined state actions within the U.N. The citizens of the U.S. have no direct control over this body. If the states of this world combine to deflect asteroids, it is another link being forged in the chain of world government.

Asteroid mitigation doesn’t pay

The agenda of Rusty Schweikart, an influential member of ASE, is of interest as are some of his statements. On the one hand, he is seeking the U.N. action. On the other hand, he heads a private nonprofit foundation called B612 whose goal is to mitigate the risk of asteroid collisions. Its goal is to fly a mission by 2015 and deflect an asteroid as a demonstration project. He says that the cost will not be large, some $300 million, because there is no complex scientific payload to such a mission. But B612 is confused so far. He says of it: "B612 Foundation is continually wrestling with the question, given its extremely limited resources, of where to apply its efforts, lobbying Congress for action, educating the general public, or focusing on our primary goal of getting a demonstration of deflection capability off the ground."

At what level of damage does spending $300 million become economically rational? If the odds are 1 in 50,000 of a hit, then the damages have to be very, very large, namely, $15 trillion. This number is near the combined value of every company in the S&P 500 Index. It suggests that it is not rational to spend money to mitigate this risk, since the actual damages would likely be far smaller than this amount. Suppose that a human life is worth $20 million, which is a generous estimate. Suppose that 75 percent of the total damages are human lives lost, or $11.25 trillion. Then there has to be loss of life of about 556,000 persons, which is very high. Krakatoa killed 36,000. Asteroid mitigation is uneconomic.

My damages estimates are very, very much larger than Schweikart’s, and it still does not pay to do anything. In his words, "In the case of Apophis the cost (infrastructure loss) is $400B and the current probability of impact (occurrence) is 1 in 5500 yielding a rational insurance expenditure of $7.3 M to mitigate against that potential loss. In fact we’re spending essentially $0.00." But that probability of impact is now only 1 in 45,000, which makes the rational insurance expenditure less than $1 million!

Schweikart knows that spending large amounts to mitigate this asteroid risk does not pay. It is no wonder that he has found a lack of interest in asteroid mitigation among the public, financiers, and elsewhere. It is no wonder he is thinking in terms of lobbying Congress and the U.N. Asteroid mitigation is a money-losing project.

Famine deaths run into many millions, often associated with war and state actions. If the ASE wants to do some good and not simply promote its own centralized and money-losing space agenda, let it turn its attention to remediable causes of death being caused by the same institutions from which it is seeking aid.

Michael S. Rozeff [send him mail] is a retired Professor of Finance living in East Amherst, New York.

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