Getting the willies about some of those new NASA space probes

I had some apprehension when I heard the news.  

The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) launched a mission to crash a spacecraft into an asteroid in an attempt to "knock it off course."  The Double Asteroid Redirection Test or DART mission lifted off from California on Nov. 23, 2021 with the intent of smashing a probe into Dimorphos, a mini-moon orbiting Didymos, a sub-kilometer asteroid classified as both a potentially hazardous asteroid and a near-Earth object, in an attempt to change the trajectory of the mini-moon.

There are approximately 1.113 million asteroids identified by NASA ranging in size from 329 miles across to 33 feet across.  The objective of the DART mission, the U.S. component of a collaboration with the European Space Agency (ESA) called AIDA (Asteroid Impact and Deflection Assessment), is to determine if the motion of an asteroid on a collision course with Earth could be changed to avoid Earth impact.  If DART can change the trajectory of an asteroid millions of miles from Earth, even by a little, it could significantly decrease the chance of a collision with the Earth.

What could go wrong? 

Well, lately the scientific community has a less than stellar track record when conducting experiments for "the good of mankind."  What contingencies have been explored to ensure that a course change in the trajectory of Dimorphos, no matter how slight, does not pose a future threat to Earth?  What "Butterfly Effect" could result should the trajectory of the mini-moon be altered by just one degree?  If a probe were sent on a path from Earth to the sun, just a one-degree deviation from its path while near Earth would result in the probe missing the sun by some 1.6 million miles.  While efforts to protect civilization from extinction-level events are laudable, similar projects have resulted in unintended consequences that continue to change the course of human history.

Take the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, for example.  There is a growing body of evidence to suggest that this "Frankenstein" virus was created in a laboratory and that, even with every possible precaution taken, it escaped to kill millions of people around the world.  These gain of function research experiments were conducted in a joint undertaking by Chinese and American scientists and resulted in the modification of a virus common to horseshoe bats and not transmissible to humans to one highly virulent and easily transmissible to humans.  With the creation of this new virus, scientists planned to concentrate on the development of a vaccine to control the virus should it "naturally" cross over to humans from bats, but, with the escape of the virus into the populace, science was forced to face its limitations and was incapable of judiciously "cleaning up" the mess it created.   

While the aim of this research was ostensibly laudable, the end result was unexpected and nowhere near optimal.  The fact that COVID-19 exists today increases the odds that additional deadly man-made viruses reside in laboratories around the globe, for science rarely stops to consider the consequences of its actions, only the efficacy of its goals.  Meanwhile, the world is into its third major variant of COVID-19, governments are using the outbreak to tighten control over its citizens, livelihoods have disappeared, and trillions of dollars have been lost.  More unintended consequences?

But wait...there's more!  Consider the creation of the first living robots, dubbed xenobots, in 2020.  Last month, scientists reported the discovery of "an entirely new form of biological reproduction" associated with these supercomputer-designed xenobots.  The millimeter-wide xenobots spontaneously replicate over and over, creating multiple generations by moving and compressing dissociated cells in their environment into functional self-copies.  Scientists see a future where swarms of these xenobots perform useful functions like removing oil from sea water or attacking cancer within the human body.  What could possibly go wrong?

In their hubris, scientists are quick to reassure an increasingly fearful public that these xenobots are entirely contained in a lab (just like COVID-19), easily extinguished, biodegradable, and regulated by ethics experts.  But what contingencies are in place should xenobots begin to do what life forms inevitably do: evolve?  In 1988, scientists took a single Escherichia coli bacterium and used its descendants to found twelve laboratory populations.  Over the next twenty years, the twelve populations grew and mutated for over 44,000 generations.  At a point around the 31,500th generation, one population of the bacterium developed the ability to metabolize citrate, a second nutrient in their culture medium E. coli normally cannot use.

Scientists concluded, "A chance event can sometimes open evolutionary doors for one population that remain forever closed to other populations with different histories."  Similarly, a chance event could lead a swarm of xenobots, released into the environment and programmed to accomplish specific tasks, to disregard its programming and engage in new activities more beneficial to the swarm.  What if these new activities are detrimental to humanity and science is, once again, incapable of "cleaning up" the mess it created?

There is a safety protocol used by many industries called Human Performance Improvement or HPI.  Under HPI, before a new, difficult, or infrequently performed task is undertaken, the personnel involved will conduct a pre-job brief during which an important question must be answered: "What is the worst thing that could happen?"  Did scientists answer that question before launching the DART mission?  What was the answer?  What contingencies were developed to address the worst thing that could happen?  Is our current understanding of celestial mechanics sufficient to even develop such contingencies?

As scientific knowledge expands, the temptation to experiment without fully understanding the consequences of "the worst thing that could happen" will increase.  Playing God is intoxicating.  Risks today are not limited to a country, region, or specific geographic area; rather, they can jeopardize the existence of humanity.  While not averse to scientific exploration, I am averse to nameless, faceless individuals rolling the dice in the name of science while wagering the future of humanity.  Because we can do it, doesn't mean we should do it.

Meanwhile, scientists around the world are engaged in gene drive research.  In 2015, scientists in the United States successfully forced certain genes to be inherited by all of a fruit fly's offspring, overriding natural selection.  Future applications of gene drive research could eradicate malaria-carrying mosquitoes or force the extinction of a species deemed a nuisance.  The technology is inexpensive and widely accessible.  What's the worst thing that could happen?

Image: Pixabay, Pixabay License.

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