Where was Chicken Little?

It seems to me that John Ashcroft and Robert Mueller have bungled a golden opportunity to deflect criticism. Instead of arguing with Congress and the media about who's to blame for not following up on pre-9/11 hints, the attorney general and the FBI chief should say, "Look, nobody's perfect, and we're still doing better than those space cadets at the Lincoln Near Earth Asteroid Research program!"

I'm not trying to slam the staff at LINEAR, a branch of NASA based in New Mexico. Their daunting job is to locate 90 percent of all near-earth objects bigger than 62/100ths of a mile in diameter by 2008.

With national attention focused on tightening security from the ground up, nobody was looking in the right direction when Asteroid 2002MN, big as a soccer field, whipped by our planet earlier this month about 75,000 miles out. Imagine the solar system as a massive baseball game and 2002MN is the celestial version of a fastball missing the plate on the outside corner.

According to news reports, the giant space tourist wasn't detected by scientists at LINEAR until three days after the close encounter. The line that really grabbed my attention came from Steve Maran of the American Astronomical Society, who was quoted thusly: "It's a good thing it missed the earth, because we never saw it coming."

There is no daily color-code system to warn Americans about the potential risk of a cosmic collision, but maybe now is the time for Tom Ridge to grab a telescope and start devising one. I would give Asteroid 2002MN a rating somewhere between burnt orange and brown.

Experts say it would not have wiped out civilization. It did, however, have the potential to duplicate the 1908 impact in Siberia that devastated 800 square miles.

Otherworldly as this story may sound, I do believe it has some gravitas as a homeland security issue.

Not that I'm worried about Al Qaeda agents secretly building huge magnets to attract a rain of astrobombs onto American soil. But since we're spending billions of dollars on antimissile research, it seems there should be a little money available for some serious theorizing about how to deal with incoming space mountains.

While the policymakers debate the fiscal and political details, I will go back to my daily world and try to follow the advice of reporter Ned Scott, a character in the original movie version of "The Thing," who broadcast these unforgettable lines on his radio report as the film ended: "Watch the skies. Everywhere. Keep looking. Keep watching the skies!"

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