The economics of protecting the planet from an asteroid disaster : Planet Money Some smart people say we should be doing more to protect the Earth from asteroids. The technical issues are relatively easy. The economics — figuring out who's going to pay — are much harder. | Support our show here.
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How To Stop An Asteroid

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How To Stop An Asteroid

How To Stop An Asteroid

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[NOTE: This transcript reflects the original 2015 episode. There may be updates from this version not reflected here.]

JACOB GOLDSTEIN, HOST:

On a Friday morning two years ago, people in a city called Chelyabinsk in Siberia saw a bright light in the sky. And apparently, lots of people in Russia I guess have cameras mounted on the dashboards of their cars. So you can see tons of videos of this on YouTube, you know, as people are just driving down the highway, listening to the radio.

ROBERT SMITH, HOST:

Then suddenly, that bright light becomes brighter and brighter and shoots across the sky.

GOLDSTEIN: Two minutes after that, boom.

(SOUNDBITE OF EXPLOSION, SIRENS)

GOLDSTEIN: A small asteroid had entered the earth's atmosphere and exploded about 20 miles up.

(SOUNDBITE OF EXPLOSION)

SMITH: The shockwave from the explosion hit the city. The ground shook. Glass shattered. More than a thousand people were hospitalized.

GOLDSTEIN: Nobody was killed because the asteroid was small, 'cause it only sort of grazed the earth's atmosphere, 'cause it didn't explode right over the city.

SMITH: This made the news. People talked about it a lot. And then everyone sort of forgot about it except for a small group of scientists - because they knew something. They knew that this event was going to happen again. And if the next time the rock is bigger, if it comes at a slightly steeper angle, if it flies one morning over Moscow or New York City, millions of people could die.

GOLDSTEIN: There's always a small group of scientists telling us that next time is going to be really bad, the next pandemic, the next earthquake, the next whatever. There's always things that we could be worried about.

SMITH: But the interesting thing about the asteroid threat is that it's actually solvable. It's pretty cheap, by global standards, to make sure an asteroid doesn't kill you. The question isn't, like, oh, no, what do we do about this? The question is, why aren't we doing something about this?

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

SMITH: Hello, and welcome to PLANET MONEY. I'm Robert Smith.

GOLDSTEIN: And I'm Jacob Goldstein. Today on the show, we're putting the planet into PLANET MONEY - and also the money. It's the economics of protecting the earth from global catastrophe.

SMITH: Should we just play the Bruce Willis tape now?

GOLDSTEIN: Well, we've got to do it sometime.

SMITH: Do it.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "ARMAGEDDON")

BRUCE WILLIS: (As Harry Stamper) None of you have to go. We can all just sit here on Earth, wait for this big rock to crash into it and kill everything and everybody we know. The United States government just asked us to save the world. Anybody want to say no?

SMITH: (Yelling) Woo.

GOLDSTEIN: Let's do it.

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SMITH: Let's take a step back from the science-fiction world of Bruce Willis and just own this. OK, Jacob, how many people died last year from asteroids?

GOLDSTEIN: Zero.

SMITH: Last 50 years.

GOLDSTEIN: Zero.

SMITH: Hundred.

GOLDSTEIN: Zero.

SMITH: Thousand.

GOLDSTEIN: As far as we know in recorded history, no one has ever died from an asteroid.

SMITH: So convince me that I should care.

GOLDSTEIN: Well, just because it has never happened doesn't mean it's not going to happen. I've been talking to some really smart people who are, in fact, quite worried about this.

ED LU: Yes, my name is Ed Lu. And I am the CEO of the B612 Foundation.

GOLDSTEIN: And what's the B612 Foundation?

LU: The B612 Foundation is a nonprofit organization dedicated to protecting the earth from being hit by asteroids.

GOLDSTEIN: And when you tell people that, do they think it's a joke?

LU: Less and less so.

SMITH: I didn't know what B612 was. In fact, you had to tell me, Jacob. It is the asteroid from the book, "The Little Prince." Cute.

GOLDSTEIN: Yeah, I had to ask Ed Lu, actually. He's an interesting guy. He has a PhD in physics. He's a former astronaut. And being out in space is how he got obsessed with asteroids. You know, he was up on the International Space Station for months at a time, where you stare out the window. And you look at the earth, and you look over at the moon.

LU: And so you watch the pockmarked 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.

SMITH: Any object in space, including the earth. And, in fact, Ed Lu says the earth has been hit by asteroids even more than the moon. I mean, we're basically covered with craters. We just don't see them because there are oceans and trees. And the craters that are there have been washed away by wind and rain.

GOLDSTEIN: In any given year, it's probably not going to happen. In any given year, the chance of a decent-sized asteroid hitting the earth, somewhere around 1 in 500. But if one of those asteroids does hit near a populated area, it's going to be really bad.

LU: Something like that hitting, call it New York City, would send a shockwave down which would blow out, you know, all of Manhattan and, you know, all the way out to Long Island and so on, basically topple everything.

GOLDSTEIN: You mean, like, knock buildings down?

LU: Oh, yeah. It would blow them over like matchsticks.

SMITH: And it's not like it would have to be a direct hit on a city.

GOLDSTEIN: Say an asteroid explodes a hundred miles away from my office, what's...

LU: You're probably dead. You're dead.

GOLDSTEIN: By what - by what mechanism? What happens?

LU: Any of various things, you know, hypersonic rocks moving through, enormous shockwave. You could just be burned to death by the flash, depending upon how close you are. You could be vaporized anywhere, you know, anywhere near it.

GOLDSTEIN: Vaporized.

LU: It would be roughly equivalent to 10 nuclear weapons hitting New York City at once.

SMITH: This is the kind of thing that is so hard to wrap your head around. You have this thing that is an inconceivably large disaster. But it's such an inconceivably tiny chance. Like, it's almost impossible as human beings to know what to do with this.

GOLDSTEIN: Yeah, and I will say, I mean I pitched this story. I did this story. I will be the first to say, protecting ourselves from asteroids should not be at the top of our global to-do list. This problem, it's not climate change. It's not extreme poverty. But, you know, Ed Lu says it should be on the list somewhere. In fact, he's basically devoting his professional life to it. He runs this foundation whose mission is to protect the earth from asteroids.

LU: The question is, well, why asteroids? It's the one sort of global natural disaster that anybody knows how to prevent.

GOLDSTEIN: Because if you have enough warning, it is technologically feasible to send a spaceship, send it to an asteroid to deflect it - deflect it even a tiny bit so it doesn't hit the earth. But before you can do that sort of exciting part of it, you have to find where the asteroids are. And even for that we have a technology. It's called a telescope. And Ed Lu wants to build it.

LU: We're trying to put a space telescope into orbit around the sun to see asteroids that cross Earth's orbit and look for those that are going to hit the earth.

GOLDSTEIN: What's keeping you from building it right now?

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

GOLDSTEIN: It would cost about $500 million to build that telescope and send it out into space. So far, Ed Lu has raised about 10 million.

SMITH: Just for comparison, $500 million for this first step in saving the planet, the movie "Armageddon," where Bruce Willis pretended to save the earth, grossed more than $550 million worldwide.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "DIE HARD")

WILLIS: (As John McClane) Yippee Ki Yay, mother….

GOLDSTEIN: That's not "Armageddon."

SMITH: No, different Bruce Willis movie.

GOLDSTEIN: All right. So why is it, though, that humanity - you know, all of us on the planet, are willing to spend that much to see a movie about saving the earth from an asteroid but not willing to spend that much to actually save the earth from an asteroid?

SMITH: We called up an expert to ask about this.

ALEX TABARROK: Hi, I'm Alex Tabarrok, and now I guess I've become the asteroid economist.

GOLDSTEIN: Officially an economist at George Mason University who's kind of obsessed with this asteroid problem.

TABARROK: 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. On the other hand, if other people aren't giving, well, then my dollar isn't going to make a difference. In that case, I'd rather take the dollar and, again, buy a chocolate bar.

SMITH: Things that everyone benefits from, whether they pay or whether they don't, are called public goods. And the classic way of playing for them is this. The government just makes you pay for them (laughter). You don't have a choice. If you live in the U.S. or in almost any other country and you pay taxes, you are paying for public goods like the Army, national defense. You are paying for that whether you want to or not.

GOLDSTEIN: And in the U.S., you are paying something for asteroid defense. The government has been paying some for asteroid defense. And as a result, we've actually found most of the, like, giant, dinosaur-killer asteroids. And fortunately, none of those are on track to hit us.

SMITH: Yes. But there are the smaller ones. And when I say smaller ones, I mean the ones that could vaporize New York City. And we don't know where they are.

GOLDSTEIN: No, almost all of those are still undetected.

SMITH: You know, and 10 years ago, Congress did pass a law telling NASA to find those small asteroids. But Congress did not give NASA the money to do it. You can imagine the head of NASA testifying at the Congressional hearing sounds like this.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

CHARLES BOLDEN: We are where we are today because, you know, you all told us to do something. And it - and between the administration and the Congress, the funding to do that did not - the bottom line, as always, the funding did not come.

GOLDSTEIN: Here's the problem with coming up with the money for asteroid defense. It's not just a regular public good. It's, like, next level. It is a planetary public good. You know, every country on Earth would benefit from asteroid defense, even if they didn't pay for it.

SMITH: And so when you have this Congressional hearing, really this opportunity for politicians to stand there and say, you know, we're going to do the right thing; we're going to save the planet, it's their Bruce Willis moment. And what do the congressmen do? They say, why are we paying for the whole thing?

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: What steps have we taken to bring countries together that could contribute those billions of dollars as well as our own?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Other countries were invited, but they weren't interested in contributing anything.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: I would suggest including Russia in on this. They may be able to make some major contributions to save us some money and actually make it a more effective system.

GOLDSTEIN: There is, of course, the expected U.N. committee that talks about the asteroid threat. There's some international coordination on this but not a lot of international money. NASA has increased its budget for finding asteroids in the past few years. But the budget is still not enough to build a space telescope like the one at Ed Lu has in mind.

SMITH: In other words, we really haven't solved the asteroid problem yet because we haven't figured out this really basic thing. How do you coordinate shared responsibility for threats that are on a planetary scale? And remember, asteroids are the easy thing on the global to do list.

SMITH: The things at the top of that list are harder to solve. But in some ways, they are really similar to the asteroid problem. Alex Tabarrok points out asteroid defense is a planetary public good. So is climate change.

TABARROK: If we cut back on our emissions, that benefits everybody in the world. But it just costs us especially. You know, China doesn't want to cut back and reduce its standard of living. The United States doesn't want to cut back. And so we're in this dilemma in which each nation wants to free-ride on the carbon reducing efforts of other nations. And no one does it. And so we get a climate which is much too hot.

GOLDSTEIN: Climate change, really hard problem to solve. But asteroid defense, I don't know. I mean, Robert, end of the show, last thing, what do you think is actually going to happen with asteroid defense?

SMITH: I don't know. Just saying it's easy doesn't make it easy. I think, like, basically no one's going to do anything until there's, like, a really close call.

GOLDSTEIN: That's kind of what the Siberia thing was.

SMITH: Not close enough.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GOLDSTEIN: A bunch of thanks today. Thanks to Lindley Johnson of NASA, Mark Boswell of Sandia National Labs and to our intern, Darian Woods, who put in a lot of work on this show. Our show today was produced by Jess Jiang and our new supervising producer, Alex Goldmark. Welcome, Alex.

SMITH: Welcome, Alex. You can email us, planetmoney@npr.org or tweet as us - probably the best way - @planetmoney. And if you're looking for another podcast to listen to, may I recommend NPR's Pop Culture Happy Hour. It's about movies, TV shows, books, music - basically funny people sitting around and talking about popular culture. Pop Culture Happy Hour from NPR. You can find it at npr.org/podcasts and on the NPR One app. I'm Robert Smith.

GOLDSTEIN: And I'm Jacob Goldstein. Thanks for listening.

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