by Pete Mazzaccaro

Everyone who has ever been exposed to a science book or an episode of Star Trek is keenly aware that it is entirely possible that a giant rock could collide with the Earth and quite possibly kill everyone on the planet.

Paleontologists’ best guess about what caused dinosaurs to become extinct some 65 million years ago is that it was the result of a massive asteroid collision. Astronomers have maintained that such a collision was remote but possible. No need to worry. We’d be fine.

And then, last month, a meteor exploded over Russia, showering the country with fragments that destroyed buildings and injured 500 people. This was paired with news that a giant asteroid was scheduled to pass by Earth, safely, thank goodness, because it was big enough to do some damage. (A quick science lesson: an asteroid is a space rock. A meteor is a space rock that is rushing through our atmosphere and burning up. A shooting star is a meteor.)

Suddenly we were aware, as if for the first time, that we should probably keep an eye on asteroids headed our way. Russia, justifiably spooked, proposed international cooperation to monitor asteroids and to develop a method of pushing asteroids away from our atmosphere if and when one comes too close.

NASA began talking about the methods it would use to avoid an asteroid collision. Better to land on the asteroid and use a rocket to push it out of the way. Destroying it would just send a lot of smaller asteroids in motion (something I already knew from playing Asteroids as a kid). NASA recommended developing these plans further.

And that’s the way it always is. We never plan until it’s too late. It usually takes a bad thing to happen before we plan to avert the next one. From the minor to the major, it’s as if we can’t imagine the scenario in which disaster might strike, even when all our data tells us otherwise.

The only place this principle appears to work in reverse is in political rhetoric. On cable news and in the halls of Congress, the sky is always falling. From the doomsday of the Fiscal Cliff to the certain annihilation of the the Sequester, the end is always near on Capitol Hill.

Perhaps that’s why Congress continues to get so little done. It’s so busy watching the sky for asteroids that it has launched itself, it can’t see the real ones. It can’t see that arming the country will make it more dangerous or that falling to check pollution is altering the environment in ways that scientists worry are irreversible.

For us to take notice of those issues, we apparently need to get hit by something. Issac Newton got off easily, but I’m worried about the next one.