Space rocks, sequestration offer chance for reflection

In about one week, a massive object is set to strike Washington, D.C., the effects of its impact rippling across the country. This object, whose official designation is Pub.L. 112-25 § 302, has been circling around above our heads for well over a year, but we have done nothing to stop it from hitting us.

No, I’m not talking about the asteroid that passed us by last week—or the meteorite that improbably exploded over Chelyabinsk, Russia the same day—but the drily named “sequester” mandated by the Budget Control Act of 2011, the bill that staved off the debt ceiling crisis of that summer. Many legislators and economists agree that if the sequester—comprising $1.2 trillion in budget cuts over the next eight years—took effect, it would seriously hinder economic growth and render government agencies more anemic than they already are. Is there anything we can do to avert the impending fiscal disaster? If we just let it come, then what does that mean for the country?

With just a week or so to go until the deadline, many lawmakers, especially Republicans, believe the sequester is inevitable due to the “vast distance” between Democrats and Republicans on the issue of revenue. While Senate Democrats have proposed a replacement to the sequester that would include $55 billion in new revenues, Republicans are holding firm in their opposition after their loss in the fiscal cliff deal at the end of last year; therefore this alternative is unlikely to pass. According to The Hill, the $85 billion in cuts that would extend from March 1 to September 30 are a fait accompli, and it is the remaining hundreds of trillions that will likely be subject to negotiation between President Obama and Congress. In the meantime, though, the sequester would consign many federal workers to layoffs and endanger the health of countless projects contributing to the public good.

Despite the furor in Washington, The Hill reports that the fiscal cliff deal made it less likely that “mass panic” would erupt in the country, and so, for analysts of finance and politics the sequester has not “been at the front of people’s minds.” This is, of course, not to say “Mission Accomplished” in averting fiscal disaster; the economy contracted last quarter due in large part to reductions in government spending. What will happen when the sequester hits? According to the Congressional Budget Office (CBO), growth might slow to a 1.4 percent annual rate (far from sufficient to keep up with the demands of an increasing population), and the economy could hemorrhage up to 750,000 jobs.

That’s the big picture. But because $1.2 trillion in cuts over eight years might seem a bit abstract, it might be wise to zoom in a bit and see how this could affect the operations of a single agency.

Take NASA, for example, and that asteroid that veered within shouting distance of Spaceship Earth. The asteroid, called 2012 DA14 because it was discovered just last year, measures 50 meters from end to end, far from the biggest hunk of rock that’s speeding through the solar system. At its closest approach on February 15, according to NASA, DA14 came within just 17,150 miles of Earth. As The Guardian wrote last week, this is the closest any asteroid has gotten in the two decades that the sky has been covered by systematic survey.

There are other near-Earth asteroids (NEAs) whose orbits overlap with Earth’s, including 99942 Apophis, which is several times larger than DA14 and is expected to get nearly as close to Earth in 2029. Tracking these asteroids is the business of dozens of agencies around the world, including NASA and others with which it is connected. DA14, for example, was discovered by the La Sagra Sky Survey in Mallorca, Spain from a distance of 2.7 million miles. La Sagra reported the findings to NASA’s Minor Planet Center, which is tied to the International Astronomical Union (of “Pluto is not a planet” fame). All of these agencies work together to keep tabs on the possibly 500,000 NEAs that might pose a threat to Earth.

But only one percent of these NEAs have been found. NASA states that a direct hit of an object the size of DA14 would release 2.5 megatons of energy and cause “regional devastation.” NASA has initiated a variety of projects to study, find, and deflect asteroids, including solar propulsion systems, mining ability, and robotic and human exploration technologies. But much of the progress being made right now in these areas could be stymied by the sequester. According to Nature, NASA stands to lose $417 million from its science budget, $346 million in space operations, $309 million in exploration funds, and $246 million in agency coordination funds.

In an open letter written to Senator Barbara Mikulski (D-MD), NASA wrote that several of its programs were in the sequester’s line of fire, including the world-renowned Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL). Alongside many other activities, JPL manages NASA’s Near-Earth Object Observation (NEOO) Program, a coordinated network of ground- and space-based telescopes devoted to detecting NEAs. If the sequester takes effect on March 1, then not only would JPL lose much of its funding as a whole, but we could likely expect projects like the NEOO program to languish. As I previously mentioned, we have no idea of the position of 99 percent of near-Earth objects. Until Friday, these unknowns included the meteorite that appeared out of nowhere on dashboard cams all over Chelyabinsk. Though this object was much smaller than DA14, many are likely of comparable size, and their impact would unleash an amount of energy 100 times that of the larger of the two atomic bombs dropped over Hiroshima.

The sequester is loved by no one, but those who argue for government spending cuts over tax cuts in general, as the Republican party does, say that short-term sacrifices are crucial to maintain the long-term fiscal health of the country. This kind of rhetoric is convincing, but when it hits agencies like NASA, stifling progress at JPL and potentially minimizing its connections with partners like La Sagra in Spain, we all risk feeling austerity’s negative side effects. Surely we’ll never detect all the asteroids in the solar system, but every data point, and every dollar, counts.

Last year, at the National Space Symposium, famed astronomer Neil deGrasse Tyson argued that NASA’s government should be doubled from its current level of $17 billion (only a small percentage of the global space economy). Chances are, that’s a non-starter with Congress. But they can do a whole lot better than taking the axe indiscriminately to NASA’s programs, and this is true for all the government programs affected by the sequester. If there’s anything the last week of astronomical events should have alerted us to, it should be that the question of national “responsibility”, which is so often framed as a question of short-term fiscal sacrifice, is not at all that clear cut. There’s about 500,000 massive objects in space that beg to differ.

 

—Lane Kisonak ‘13 is a Political Science major. He is Opinions Editor of The Miscellany News.

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