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Fly-by on Feb. 15, 2013: What can asteroid 2012DA14 tell us about fundraising?

Earth and Asteroid 062813
By Gil Israeli, Director of Prospect Research and Senior Writer, American Technion Society

On February 15th, asteroid 2012 DA 14, measuring 163 feet across – about half the size of a football field and classified by NASA as a Near Earth Object (NEO), will pass about 17,200 miles above Asia – visible with a good pair of binoculars – in our backyard.

According to NASA, B612 Foundation and Scientific American, DA 14 is just one of an ongoing cascade of NEO encounters. It’s hard to get a handle on the overall risk. Opinions vary: based on landscape research, geologists report that 100 years is a likely span for Earth-bound cosmic events; space scientists maintain that centuries or thousands of years may pass before a serious threat develops.

B612 Foundation, founded by a cohort of NASA alums, former astronauts and space scientists, aims to remedy the government’s current weakness in asteroid identification and tracking. With a $500 million (plus) fundraising campaign, they plan… to finance the design and construction of an infrared telescope and to launch it into orbit between Earth and Venus. If the 2017 launch date occurs, then there will be additional years until the satellite will be in position for operation. So, until then, Earth is orbiting the sun without a reliable set of eyes for early warning.

A hypothetical impact by DA 14, would be similar to the 1908 impact in Tunguska, Siberia which wiped out approximately 772 square miles of forest in the middle of nowhere.  New York City, measuring 302 square miles with a population of over 8 million, would be decimated along with parts of New Jersey and Connecticut.

The destructive capacity of an asteroid impact is measured by the amount of energy discharged by nuclear weapons: kilotons and megatons of TNT.  DA 14 would pack about 2,500,000 tons of TNT (2.5 megatons), while the bomb that was dropped on Hiroshima released about 20,000 tons of TNT.

But for the human mind this is not viscerally accessible – unless, of course, you are one of the few surviving Hibakusha (the “explosion-affected people” of the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki).

To move it away from the abstract and evoke some feeling in your heart, and shock and legitimate fear of nuclear weapons and asteroids take a look at photos of the incinerated leveled Hiroshima landscape on August 6, 1945.

The asteroids that can clean the slate – that wipe out humanity and most other life forms – measure at least half a mile wide and would cause climatic catastrophe as debris in the air would block sunlight, disable photosynthesis and cause global crop failure and mass starvation for the survivors. To deflect these killer asteroids, we would need a ship (and years to build it) to go out to blast the asteroid with a nuclear bomb, or, intentionally smash into it to change its orbit.  Third, a new device has been suggested – a gravity tractor could approach the asteroid and nudge it into a new acceptable orbit. But the critical problem that remains is the lack of advance warning.

99942 Apophis, discovered in 2004, was probably the first real wake-up call that pushed several governmental and nonprofit organizations to step up funding… but still not get the dollars together for a truly effective identification and tracking system.

Measuring just over .2 of a mile or three-and-a-half football fields – with a hypothetical 510 megaton impact, Apophis was initially predicted to have a 2.7% chance of impact in 2029. The Torino scale, rated one to ten, is the measure of likelihood of impact. It was a historic moment when Apophis was the first asteroid to be eventually ranked with a four. With continuing observation, the odds of impact were revised: from 1-in-45,000 to just less than 1-in-1,000,000.

If you’re not a scientist, it is frightening reading papers you don’t fully understand. For asteroid 2011 AG5: “Extensive analysis of the current orbit parameters of 2011AG5 shows that it currently has a 1-in-500 chance of impacting the Earth on February 5, 2040. With an estimated diameter… of about 140 meters and a calculated impact velocity of 15 kilometers per second, the asteroid would release about 100 megatons of energy should it impact. In order for the asteroid to impact Earth then, it would first have to pass through a small 365-km-wide region in space (called a “keyhole”), 1.8 million km from Earth, during a close Earth encounter on February 3, 2023.” Subsequent NASA materials indicate that there will be data from future observations in 2013 that will likely eliminate this threat.

NASA’s take on Potentially Hazardous Asteroids: “No one should be overly concerned about an Earth impact of an asteroid or comet. The threat to any one person from auto accidents, disease, other natural disasters and a variety of other problems is much higher than the threat from NEOs. Over long periods of time, however, the chances of the Earth being impacted are not negligible so that some form of NEO insurance is warranted.”

B612 Foundation aims to remedy the government’s weakness in asteroid identification and tracking to an acceptable level of diligence. Their goal is to design and construct an infrared telescope and to launch it into orbit between Earth and Venus. With its back to the Sun and Venus, its imaging elements could then identify the 500,000-plus asteroids larger than the one which devastated Tunguska – that may be heading towards us.

B612 wasn’t always in the business of identifying asteroids. Former NASA astronaut Ed Lu, the foundation’s CEO, explains that this is a private endeavor: “All along we had assumed that someone somewhere was going to undertake the first step of actually mapping and locating all of the objects crossing Earth’s orbit.  So we had been pushing for step 2: deflection. But it soon became clear that no one was going to do step one. The budget situation in Washington didn’t bode well, and in Europe it was even worse.”

We can take a page out of social science research and look at the work of spouses Muzafir and Carolyn Sherif, creative social psychologists most active from the 1950s on, who studied group behavior at a time when the field of social psychology was barely developed. They defined Superordinate Goals: the causes that rally individuals and groups together to look beyond their personal differences and smaller interests – to collaborate to achieve that which they can not accomplish alone. Today, this sounds like common sense, but back then their work was original and it has become an underlying influence that has helped shape the entire field of social psychology.

In 1961, the Sherifs took advantage of the best controlled social situation they could find (and manipulate) — summer camps — to measure group formation, conflict and resolution among  11- and 12-year-old boys from traditional middle-class families. First, the researchers (working as counselors) organized two groups of boys and coordinated activities that allowed only one group to win and get prizes (zero-sum games) — to foster group formation. Then the “counselors” created circumstances that helped ignite intergroup aggressiveness: rather than negotiate shared space (as in any well-run camp), they positioned the baseball field as a hotly contestable property – which was claimed by one group with a symbolic flag. Later, following a hostile baseball game, the counselors stood by – allowing the other team to burn the flag. Relations deteriorated quickly: meals became an ongoing series of “garbage wars” with each group throwing food and insults at the other. Finally, superordinate goals were introduced such as the need to collaborate to repair a food truck on its way to restock the camp kitchen. Since boys think with their stomachs, they worked together, hostilities melted away and they choose to positively interact in subsequent shared activities.

Now you would think that NEO threats would inspire a monumental superordinate goal for identification, tracking and deflection of Potentially Hazardous asteroids. But the outstanding problem that B612 Foundation faces in their public relations work and fundraising is our lack of  a visceral understanding of what an asteroid impact could do to a city or any location, for that matter.

Japan’s Hibakusha understand massive destruction and subsequent suffering as real experience and so do those few of us who have suffered through flooding, hurricanes, tsunamis, avalanches, massive mudslides, cave-ins, earthquakes, twisters and tidal waves. If this group received news of an impending asteroid impact in a month or year, the flight side of their “fight or flight response” would go off like alarm bells. This switch, gifted to us by evolution and wired through your sympathetic nervous system, has the singular job to protect you – making your instincts the immediate decision-maker when a serious immediate threat looms, not some drawn-out cognition like SWOTs or risk analysis.

Fight or flight evolved by being attuned to local events which are immediately open to your senses. While wild cougars don’t prey on city streets, here are a few examples that may spark a memory: the high school bully swaggering up the street, walking into a bar that just doesn’t feel right seconds later and sitting next to an obnoxiously loud soccer fan who spills his beer on your shoe. Your angry adrenaline then kicks in:  I paid for this seat and Mr. Neanderthal here is in MY SPACE.

The interesting thing about Hiroshima and “fight or flight” is that its citizens were initially attuned to the sound of the overhead flight of several enemy planes on bombing sorties (their engines in unison). The particular sound would trigger the flight reaction and the ground-dwellers would then race for cover from the conventional bombs being dropped. But after the nuclear bombing of Hiroshima by one plane, the nervous systems of survivors became attuned to the sound of a single overhead plane engine as another potential exterminator with an atomic bomb. So, new experience can redefine the parameters and repertoire of the “fight or flight” response.

Aside from this adaptive aspect – which can rewire the switch and help you stay alive in subsequent encounters, this means that humanity has the capacity to “change its settings” and feel new types of fear – protective prophylactic fear – from certain stimuli in the right context.  But this switch, just as it can be sensitized to new stimuli,  can also be desensitized to general and specific stimuli.

There are now generational differences in the sensitivity and desensitivity of this switch.

It starts early. My daughter, once six years old, would secretly click on the television to watch the Mighty Morphin Power Rangers fling alien enemies through the air and vice versa. The Power Rangers promote a type of fun violence which teaches that the fight response is okay in most every confrontation and that it has no physical consequences to you or to your combatant. Chaim Saban, the owner of the Power Rangers franchise, has been correctly criticized by psychologists and educators and responded as only a businessman can: he sold his other media interests, broadened the Rangers franchise with spin-offs and started donating funds to conflict resolution programs in schools.

My sister, now in her 40s, is an emergency room physician who has seen as much death and blood as some war veterans. Yet, when she has tried to read Pet Cemetary (by Stephen King), more than once, the experience becomes so frightening, she has stopped, put down the book and quickly left the room.  This speaks to the “suspension of disbelief” that certain effective works of art can achieve — that we can actually forget we are reading a book in the comfort of our favorite chair in the living room. But now think of the whopping box-office success of the currently released re-make of the Texas Chainsaw Massacre.  This is a good example of how (I think) our “settings” can be horribly manipulated as it raises the bar for the violence that audiences can sit and watch with popcorn in hand.  Is there suspension of disbelief? What is clear is that the audience remains seated for the duration of the movie and neither the fight or flight response is acted upon. Instead, stationary absorption of this type of stimuli occurs (slashing, goring, dismemberment), and the fight or flight response is recalibrated to not produce its original associated behaviors. Young adults who are habitual viewers have lost the sense of what is a genuine threat to their individual and, also, their collective survival.

While TV and movies work one end of the violence spectrum, we have museums dedicated to the aversion of certain types of atrocities, but those are based on events that have already happened… not probable future events such as climate change or a possible asteroid impact.

In 1993, at the opening of the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C., I entered an initially darkened corridor that connected exhibits. Parallel to my path and flush to the wall were stacks of decaying shoes which had been worn by some of the six million. Five feet in, the scene and the face-flattening stench became so offensive that I pulled my shirt collar to my nostrils and quickened my pace to escape the offensive place. I then entered another corridor and witnessed an expanse of family photographs on the walls and ceiling. These images are of people with tired smiles, warm eyes, wearing their best holiday clothes and you can almost hear their sighs of relief. They have a recently gained sense of contentment that says: we made it, we’re doing all right — and that they wanted to celebrate this moment with a photograph for their progeny, which, subsequently, would never be born.

In contrast, just last weekend I took my three-year-old son to the Hayden Planetarium in New York and on the lower level resides the Willamette meteorite, about the size of a grand piano, the piece that did not burn up passing through Earth’s atmosphere. Positioned in the middle, under the planetarium’s southern hemisphere, the rock draws patrons in as if it is a DNA magnet.

Children and adults reach across the low railing and touch the meteorite, inserting a hand into the smoothed and polished holes. One mother told her two children under ten with an upbeat tone: this crashed into Earth thousands of years ago!  (No destructiveness here.)  Another: this hurtled through space and now my hand is in it! (Contact is possible?) Finally, a teenager captures the spirit: This is a piece of history!

They all feel that some grandeur of the age and journey of this space rock is rubbing off onto them and it leads to the feeling that the entire planetarium strives to cultivate, that SPACE IS BEAUTIFUL. The entire exhibit is spacious, colorful while not being jarring and organized with an orbit of smaller exhibits around the Willamette meteorite.

A SPECTACULAR STELLAR FINALE has a large circular screen with captivating ribbons of colors of a star going supernova. (This is the universe’s explosive engine for making new planets.) Then you can walk back into other orbits of our solar system and step on designated floor spots and read what you would weigh on Mars, Venus… isn’t that a nice comfy at-home feeling?

SPACE IS BEAUTIFUL has been passed down to us for two centuries. The man on the moon has given us black and white photos of the Sea of Tranquility, aptly named, given its mystical landscape and videos of Neil Armstrong hopping along like a happy five-year old on a trampoline. As he reports back to NASA and all humanity, he sounds like he’s having the time of his life and why not? The Hubble telescope has given us gorgeous images of spiral galaxies colliding and Saturn with its vibrant rings (looking like a child’s toy) – turning interstellar space images into a new art form. In a painting by Giuseppe Bertini, Galileo instructs Venetian leaders in the beautifully rendered discipline of science and the use of telescopes. Esoteric Christianity has given us “Musica universalis” or the “music of the spheres,” based on the notion that the stable god-granted mathematical relationships of position between celestial bodies express harmonic sound.  So, music and space are beautiful – together.

What we don’t get is the other side of SPACE — the entropy, the massive destructive power and the ugliness that its objects and events can also exact.

Why doesn’t the Hayden Planetarium add a video simulation of the meteorite hitting New York’s Upper West Side? If they showed the Willamette meteorite taking out buildings and landscapes, that would be a tangible unit of measure — something that we could understand, something that would add a real dollop of consciousness and momentum to B612’s mission.

Perhaps routine has numbed us.

We live in a world of ongoing routine: each morning you brush your teeth the same way; you mostly use the same soap, shampoo and detergent for years and have a habitual scent that your family and co-workers are used to (and they would notice if it changed); you’ve lived years in certain locales that shape the morphology of how you speak so that your accent, syntax, semantics and also your nonverbal behaviors are like a road map to a sociolinguist who can name those places,  your level of education, your profession and income level.

We live with all this routine because we have also created an on-tap supply of beauty as a salve to what we must slog through: the work that pays our rent and food bills… not to mention the many parts of life that are just hard.  We’re just tired when the day ends. So beauty has become an easy drug and now comes in small and large portions, both pre-packaged and live, ready to serve you at almost any time and at any place.

The other factor that weighs in here is that beauty (natural and man-made) usually doesn’t trigger either side of the flight or fight switch — rather, it attracts us in a personal way that makes us vulnerable and sensitive in new different ways. And most of the time it doesn’t dumb-down or numb-down our appreciation. Our incredible production of diverse art forms marks one pinnacle of our evolutionary path — another should be a moral obligation to provide clean drinking water across the globe.

We cultivate sensitivity to different experiences of beauty: by becoming a more empathic listener (the amateur piano player listening to concert pianists); by viewing and trying to paint different schools  such as pointillism and impressionism that increase the range of your aesthetic vocabulary; and also by studying literary genres – such as the constructions of metafiction and jazz. Essentially, we  try to fine-tune ourselves as instruments that can more fully appreciate the good things in life.

But exceptions abound: the role of art to shock us into new sensibilities tests, teases and tampers with how your switch has been originally set and also culturally attuned. Think of Robert Mapplethorpe’s crucifix in a jar of urine and you may be instantly roused to a flight reaction (drawing back from this text) or a fight reaction (wanting to clobber the artist and MOMA for putting this religious travesty on display) or you may be a beatnik art critic in a black turtleneck who applauds this postmodern oddity.

As a general outcome, it is usually easier to raise funds for causes that we are culturally attuned to as beautiful or can be made to look beautiful… like curing cancer.  Forget researchers in white lab coats in their immaculate labs. Just think of the campaign commercials for St. Jude’s Children’s Hospital – how it combines bright-eyed children with shaven heads and the actors we love, for example, Robin Williams and Jennifer Lopez. The heart-felt sentiment melds the superordinate goal and the fight response: Let’s cure pediatric cancer now – together!

In contrast, most (normal) humanity is designed to have a limited threshold for exposure to what is destructive (so we can escape it) – and often cannot be repackaged.  Let’s admit that most of us have reached the point where we don’t want to intentionally watch news of the continuing hardships of victims of Hurricane Sandy still without electricity and houses without walls exposed to the sea. And on that point, you don’t want to read additional statistics about proximal asteroids.

A few pictures of the Barringer Crater (near Flagstaff, Arizona) may help make this point.

Right now space is too beautiful to be an ugly threat. But if we could rally around the cause and prod our government to accelerate what must be done – to completely fund  B612 Foundation and build those space ships, then where would we get the funds?

Well, the Stealth Bomber program had a total cost of $2.1 billion per aircraft in 1997. While this program has given way to a less expensive project to build subsonic planes for current use, the US Air Force has plans for the 2037 Bomber to serve as a stealth-enabled, supersonic, heavy-payload unmanned aircraft with nuclear warhead delivery.

2037: Invest in future nuclear war probabilities?

Or, consider the 40,000 asteroids  which NASA is currently tracking to ensure our safety. And consider the 500,000-plus asteroids similar to and larger than “the Tunguska” of which 1% have been discovered – that may be heading towards us.

We’ve written our cultural script and enjoy the story: music and space are beautiful, but taking care of ourselves and our progeny could be one of our most beautiful achievements.

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3 Comments Post a comment
  1. lista de email #

    Thank you for sharing this with me.

    February 8, 2013
  2. Thank you. We are doing our best! I invite you to submit a post of your own…

    February 15, 2013

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  1. Rusty Schweickart, Apollo 9 Astronaut, Responds About Asteroid Threats | Fundraising Compass

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