Another Perspective

Rock Hounds

The finest specimens are in space, as some at NASA know.

By 5.25.10

 A hassle has developed over the next NASA program. It involves the first and the last American on the moon. As the last Shuttle Mission is accomplished, the question is: where do we go from here?

One answer: we make a sort of taxi shuttle that can take folk to and from the orbiting space station.

But wait, comes the cry. We already got that in the Soyuz vehicle that comes and goes. No need for another one as long as we maintain relations with the Russians. Neil Armstrong, first man on the moon, and Eugene Cernan, last man off the place, told the Senate Commerce Committee that would be a bad idea, wasteful and expensive.

President Obama's science advisor encourages a "robotic" landing on the moon or "other planetary body" to keep the program in shape. Beneath it all, scientists are studying the potential in asteroids -- yes, asteroids. Lord knows there are plenty of them -- some 6,500 of the flying rocks, flying in a sort of loose formation, some threatening one day to smack our earth. The idea would be to send an astronaut crew to one of these rocks and tether to it (it doesn't have enough size or gravity to hold an astronaut vehicle).

Could be some have water in them. Robots have successfully landed on two so far -- Eros and Itokawa. Putting humans there would yield a lot more knowledge about the beginnings of our system, the advocates of these rock hounds say. Besides, a trip to the asteroid belt and back would take about half the time it would take for a round-trip to Mars.

About 1,100 of these asteroids are classified as potential dangers to earth. They come that close and they are whoppers, 150 meters or more in diameter. Enough to extinguish dinosaurs had that not been done already. Getting up to one might yield some thoughts on how to deflect it.

A lot of the bigger, potentially dangerous ones are already catalogued but there's a lot of mapping yet to do, given the more than 6,500 flying around out there.

In coming months there will be more said about these rocks, and those in government seeking funding may not have a terribly tough job if they cry, "DUCK!"

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About the Author

Reid Collins is a former CBS and CNN news correspondent.