Call the shot: asteroid, corner pocket.
That’s what kept running through my mind after we all heard the latest news from NASA. In an effort to sharpen Earth’s defenses against runaway rocks, the space agency recently slammed a spaceship into a test asteroid. The goal: to see if the rock could be bumped off course, a planetary billiards shot worthy of Minnesota Fats.
“This one’s for the dinosaurs,” one Tweet declared, one of many social media posts declaring “Revenge!” for T-Rex and its cousins.
No, it’s not exactly Hollywood. As NPR reminded everyone, our movie-makers like to solve the problem of planet-killer asteroids with nuclear weapons. (Right, Mr. Willis?) As usual, reality is a little more subtle. Just like fighting fire with fire, you fight motion with motion.
Nudges. Not nukes.
Not a bad course of action for life in general, when you think about it. We’ve all seen situations where the quiet conversation undoes the need for the shouting match, the soft answer that turns away wrath. On a larger scale, politics happens because we believe that words are better than wars … and breaks down when we forget that fact.
But there’s a second part to this, too. NASA hasn’t forgotten it. We shouldn’t either.
Without awareness, the best nudge in the world is doomed to fail.
We’re great at watching the depths of interstellar space. But our own backyard has some blind spots. Every so often, we’ll see a story about a near-miss asteroid that surprised us from out of the sun, like the Red Baron ambushing Snoopy. One rock the size of a football field missed us in 2019 by about 43,000 miles – about one-fifth the distance to the moon – and wasn’t seen until after the fact. A smaller one the next year passed us by 1,800 miles; we noticed six hours later.
Moments like that are why NASA plans to launch a new Space Surveyor telescope in a few years to help keep an eye on lower earth orbit. They’re also a good reminder for the two simple words that we’re so bad at: pay attention.
On the sidewalk, it can mean a trip or a collision because someone’s eyes were on their phone instead of their surroundings.
On the highway, a moment’s lapse of attention can have horrifying consequences.
On a larger scale, early detection of a crisis – from hurricanes to viruses – can save lives. Ignoring the warnings or failing to see them can be disastrous.
We can all chime in with our personal examples, of course. Maybe it’s something spotted during a bit of home maintenance that saved a repair later. Or a symptom noticed and checked out before it became something worse. Or even just learning about a friend’s troubles in time to lend a hand and a heart.
You can’t help what you don’t know.
Granted, our attention can’t be everywhere. A lot of alarms go off around the world in the course of a day (just ask TV news). Trying to keep every last one in mind is a recipe for anxiety and despair. There needs to be judgment as well as awareness.
But we can’t walk blind. Not to our surroundings. Not to our neighbors. Certainly not to our world.
It’s a balancing act. But a vital one. And working together, with open eyes and a light touch, we can help each other make it.
No, it’s not easy. But it’s worth the shot.
And if we aim it right, we just might hit the pocket.