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Preventing Armageddon: The Economic Hurdles Of Asteroid Defense


On a Friday morning two years ago, an asteroid exploded near a city in Siberia.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Foreign language spoken).

CORNISH: The ground shook. Glass shattered. More than a thousand people were hospitalized. Scientists say this will happen again. And if the next rock is bigger, if it flies in one morning over Moscow or New York, it could be really bad. The asteroid problem is solvable. But as Jacob Goldstein from our PLANET MONEY podcast reports, the hard part is getting the world to pay for it.

JACOB GOLDSTEIN, BYLINE: Ed Lu has a rare perspective on the asteroid issue. He's a former astronaut. He spent months staring out the window of the International Space Station, looking at the Earth and at the Moon.

ED LU: When you look at the Moon and you see that there are craters on top of craters, you realize that any planet circling the Sun, as the Earth does, is hit by asteroids all the time.

GOLDSTEIN: To be clear, asteroid strikes are really, really rare. In any given year, the chances that an asteroid big enough to destroy a city will hit the Earth are somewhere around 1 in 500. And it's unlikely that an asteroid like that would hit a densely populated area. But if it did...

Say an asteroid explodes a hundred miles away from my office.

LU: You're probably dead.

GOLDSTEIN: By what? By what mechanism?

LU: Hypersonic rocks moving through, enormous shock wave. You could be vaporized, you know? It would be roughly equivalent to 10 nuclear weapons hitting New York City at once.

GOLDSTEIN: A tiny chance of an inconceivably large disaster - maybe it shouldn't be at the top of the global to-do list, but Ed Lu says it should be on the list somewhere.

LU: It's the one sort of global natural disaster that anybody knows how to prevent.

GOLDSTEIN: There are two steps to preventing asteroid strikes. First, you have to find the asteroids that might hit the Earth. Then, you have to knock them off course. Ed Lu is working on the first step. He runs a foundation that's trying to put an asteroid-detecting telescope into space.

LU: What's keeping us from building it right now is money.

GOLDSTEIN: Lu needs about $500 million, which, coincidentally, is about how much people around the world paid to see the movie "Armageddon," the movie where Bruce Willis saves the world by blowing up an asteroid. Ed Lu has only raised a tiny fraction of that - about $10 million. So why is it that humanity is willing to pay to see a movie about saving the Earth from asteroid but not willing to pay to actually save the Earth from an asteroid? I asked Alex Tabarrok, an economist at George Mason University.

So why can't we get everybody to just chip in a buck, and we'll all be safe?

ALEX TABARROK: Well, the problem is, people are going to look around, and they're going to say, if everybody else is chipping in a buck, then, hey, we're protected. I may as well keep my buck and, you know, spend it on some bubblegum or a chocolate bar, and I'll get the chocolate bar.

GOLDSTEIN: Things everyone benefits from, whether they pay or not, are called public goods. The typical way of providing them is, the government makes everybody pay through taxes. An army is a classic example of this. But asteroid defense is not just a regular public good. It's next-level. It's a planetary public good. You could imagine a congressman saying, why should we pay for this whole thing ourselves? In fact, you don't have to imagine it.


DANA ROHRABACHER: What steps have we taken to bring countries together that could contribute those billions of dollars as well as our own?

GOLDSTEIN: This is Congressman Dana Rohrabacher at a hearing in 2013.


ROHRABACHER: I would suggest including Russia in on this.

GOLDSTEIN: There is a U.N. committee that talks about the asteroid threat but not much international money. NASA has increased its budget for finding asteroids but not enough to build that special space telescope. In other words, we still haven't really solved the asteroid problem because we haven't figured out how to coordinate shared responsibility for planetary threats, and that is a problem that goes way beyond asteroids. Jacob Goldstein, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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