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Davis, California

Monday, July 15, 2024

Column: I’m back

On Tuesday, a six-ton Upper Atmosphere Research Satellite (UARS) belonging to NASA returned to earth. The Associated Press reported that chunks of the bus-sized object broke apart and landed over a 500-mile span in the southern Pacific Ocean, far away from land, despite NASA predictions that the UARS would land somewhere near western Canada.

I know that Google has taken all of the smartest would-be NASA scientists over the last 10 years, but shouldn’t an organization like NASA be able to figure this kind of stuff out? The Pentagon doesn’t launch missiles unless it’s 100 percent sure where they’ll land. Children don’t even fly kites without being able to reel it back in. NASA, on the other hand, sends a six-ton hunk of metal into space and says, “Meh. Hopefully it’ll just hit Canada.”

While reading about this latest Chicken Little incident, I learned that this type of thing isn’t that uncommon. In 1979, Skylab, the first American space station, returned to Earth and landed in the Indian Ocean and parts of Australia. Skylab weighed nearly 77 tons and was the size of a house. Australia was furious with the United States for putting its people in danger. In retaliation, they fined the U.S. $400 for littering. Seriously.

Back then, the odds of Skylab debris hitting a human were 1 in 152. The odds of it hitting a city with a population of 100,000 or more were 1 in 7. So, chances were that nobody would get hurt, but this isn’t blackjack. This is real-life Russian-roulette battleship.

In NASA’s defense, there were teams prepared to travel at a moment’s notice to provide aid to any country that was struck by Skylab debris in 1979. And the odds of the UARS debris hitting a human this past week were just 1 in 3,200 while the odds of it hitting one person specifically was 1 in trillions.

NASA is still NASA. If it says that flying bits of fiery metal probably won’t hit me, I’ll believe them. But, it can’t hurt to have a contingency plan in place for the likely event that this will happen again.

The first thing to do during an impending satellite apocalypse is to keep your head on a swivel. This isn’t one of those escape from a lion situations where you can just out-run your slow friend and live. A falling satellite will come at you faster than midterms. You’re going to have to use your spidey-senses to identify and react at a moment’s notice.

Since you were on your toes, you’ve now realized that a bus is about to fall on you and that you will probably die. However, this is not the time to give up. Remember what NASA said about the odds of a satellite striking a human? There is a 3,199 in 3,200 chance that puppy will just fly right on by and not anvil-squash you like Wile E. Coyote.

However, you can increase your odds of survival with some agility and grace. Dodging a satellite has to be a lot like catching a pop fly in baseball. Except, the exact opposite. The worst thing you can do is imitate Zach Braff and Natalie Portman in Garden State. This isn’t a bob-and-weave moment. Pick a direction – any one will do – and run like hell.

In all seriousness, NASA is obviously an extremely valuable organization. They’ve put men on the moon, explored Mars and kicked Pluto to the kid’s table. However, if its collective brilliance can accomplish these feats, shouldn’t it be able to finish the deed? What goes up must come down, even if you’re NASA.

If you’ve been hit by space debris, contact MARK LING at mdling@ucdavis.edu then go to a hospital – in that order.



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