The Russian Meteorite Was an Early Glimpse of the End of the World

Think a tsunami is bad? Here's a giant rock.

Barringer Meteor Crater, Arizona (Wikimedia Commons)

This morning a meteorite burst over Chelyabinsk, Russia. It is an opening act for today's flyby of 2012 DA14, a building-sized asteroid that will come within 17,200 miles of Earth -- impossibly close on a universal scale.

The videos of the meteorite are astonishing, and appeal to our most primitive fears and infatuations. The footage is in many ways an early glimpse at the end of the world. Nature can be very dismissive of poor humanity, destroying our cities and towns with earthquakes and hurricanes. But those are local problems, so to speak.

Meteorites focus the mind precisely because of their disregard for nature and evolution. Think a tsunami is bad? Here's a giant rock. The threat is almost cartoonish in its terror. Meteorites aren't unusual, of course. Something on the order eighty thousand tons of material from space lands on Earth every year. Most of that is dust-sized, however, and only one percent of the Earth is inhabited. It's not often that we're treated to a show like this morning.

But at least it's a show. What happens when we get our own Shoemaker-Levy 9? Stephen Hawking has long warned of our putting all our eggs in one basket. "It will be difficult enough to avoid disaster in the next hundred years, let alone the next thousand or million," Hawking said in 2010. "Our only chance of long-term survival is not to remain inward-looking on planet Earth, but to spread out into space." (If you're interested in planetary defense, see Gregg Easterbook's 2008 investigation for The Atlantic.)

There's little chance of that happening for quite some time. The U.S. manned space program is finished, and considering American scientific illiteracy (if not outright hostility), we're vastly more likely to fund a new generation of sports stadiums than to send a new generation of humans into space. Since 1986, Americans have spent $4 billion subsidizing professional sports. In 1987, the Space Shuttle Endeavour cost $1.7 billion. Which one has more long-term value depends on your opinion of Meteor Crater.

Meanwhile, presidents have promised a mission to Mars since 1989. The Obama administration is promising one in the 2030s, but at this point it's a safe bet that short of an unprecedented scientific breakthrough, we're not going to colonize anywhere in any of our lifetimes. I imagine that the crew of Apollo 11 figured they might retire on the moon. Instead, humanity collectively took a look around, shrugged, and asked what was on the other channel.

If it's any consolation, when we're all wiped out, at least we can say that we didn't try very hard, and reassure ourselves that if we had really wanted to, what with our giant brains, we could have found a way to colonize the sun. As Neal DeGrasse Tyson wrote in Death By Black Hole, "The dominant species that replaces us in postapocalyptic Earth just might wonder, as they gaze upon our mounted skeletons in their natural history museums, why large-headed Homo sapiens fared no better than the proverbially pea-brained dinosaurs."