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A Celestial Plan for Protecting the World

Let’s say you’re an amateur astronomer and, one night behind the telescope, you spot an immense asteroid heading for Earth. You figure it’s your duty to tell someone about it, but then you think, “Hey, what’s in it for me?”

Thanks to Orange County congressman Dana Rohrabacher, the answer could be cold hard cash.

You might think a congressman has better things to do than worry about an asteroid striking the Earth -- or scaring the rest of us to death by talking about it -- but you don’t know our Mr. Rohrabacher.

As always, his brain is percolating.

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“We need to know if there is a threat coming at the world,” he told Congress last month while pushing his bill to reward amateur astronomers with cash grants for discovering asteroids or for bolstering the country’s knowledge of existing ones.

The bill sailed through the House of Representatives. A Senate version hasn’t been introduced, but a Rohrabacher spokesman said he expects one to be.

Rohrabacher is a proven spotter of global threats, having earned his conservative stripes as an outspoken anti-Communist and combative foe of illegal immigration.

He’s been less adroit at spotting local threats, having supported at least three public officials in recent years whose conduct drew the district attorney’s attention.

But that doesn’t mean he’s wrong about asteroids hitting the Earth.

Nor should you assume Rohrabacher is a dilettante on the subject, given that he’s the chairman of the House Space and Aeronautics Subcommittee.

Rohrabacher told Congress that numerous asteroids and comets have come close to Earth in recent years but went undetected until later. “If any one of these ... would have hit the Earth, it would have been a catastrophic occasion, perhaps killing hundreds of millions of people,” he said.

Scientists seem split on the actual danger to Earth.

They acknowledge that asteroids are out there, perhaps with potential to do damage, but there doesn’t seem to be agreement on how realistic that threat is.

Rohrabacher says one scientist told him the chances are no greater than that of going to Las Vegas and landing a royal flush in poker.

Rohrabacher says he once got a royal flush.

Still, the seven-term congressman isn’t prepared to break the bank over asteroids.

Perhaps reflecting his fiscal conservatism, Rohrabacher’s bill would award only $10,000 to astronomers in each of the next two years.

Ten grand to thwart the Earth’s annihilation? Yeah, I’d spring for that.

Rohrabacher wants to name the award after Charles “Pete” Conrad, a former astronaut and the third man to walk on the moon. Conrad was a Huntington Beach resident who died after a motorcycle accident in 1999.

His bill, Rohrabacher says, just might get young Americans excited about science. “Let us get them off of these electronic games,” he told Congress, “and get them into the real world, and the real world may well be dealing with threats coming to us from outer space from great distances away.”

The whole idea behind identifying asteroids, he says, is “Home Planet Defense.”

“We need to pay some attention to it; and then if an asteroid does threaten us, we will be able to identify it far in advance and deter it from its path so it would not hurt the people of the world.”

Home Planet Defense. Rohrabacher supports it, and so do I.

Is there any wonder why the congressman easily won reelection Tuesday?

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Dana Parsons’ column appears Wednesdays, Fridays and Sundays. Readers may reach Parsons by calling (714) 966-7821 or by writing to him at The Times’ Orange County edition, 1375 Sunflower Ave., Costa Mesa, CA 92626, or by e-mail to dana.parsons@latimes.com.


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