An asteroid is heading for Earth. A big one. It's called "Apophis,'' which might be Greek for "uh oh,'' and it will come "uncomfortably close'' to Earth on April 13, 2036. (It's a Sunday.)
The odds are 1 in 45,000 that the rock will strike the planet, throwing up sufficient dust to cause a massive drop in temperatures, thereby curing global warming. Hmm: Perhaps "Apophis'' is Greek for "repairman,'' and the technical term for this celestial event is "service call.''
Based on the movies, we all know how to deal with asteroids: Build a vessel that looks like the shuttle, but not so dorky. Fly it to the asteroid using those special rockets that make whooshing sounds in the vacuum of the universe. Land, preferably using the matchless skills of a grizzled character actor who hasn't piloted a spacecraft in 12 years but darn it, he's the best there is. Nuke the rock; roll the credits.
The modern version, alas, is a little more complicated. A group of scientists who brought Apophis to our attention wants to bring in the United Nations to ``adopt procedures for assessing asteroid threats and deciding if and when to take action.''
Feel safer? It's like putting the agency formerly known as the INS in charge of fighting off a Martian invasion. They'd wear the first wave down with paperwork, but then it would be death-ray city.
Yes, there's nothing like sending the world's most elephantine and unresponsive bureaucracy to address a complex, life-and-death scientific issue. If the U.N. had been responsible for going to the moon, it would have cost $6 trillion, with half the money going to the Zambian Rocket Works and other fronts for bribes and graft. Liftoff would have lasted three months as the General Assembly debated a resolution to include the phrase "Zionism is racism'' between "5'' and "4'' on the final countdown.
It's worse today. The Subcommittee in Charge of Trying to Change the Subject From Darfur would no doubt spend a year drafting a strongly worded letter to the asteroid, noting that it had the right to its trajectory. However, any catastrophic, life-extinguishing impact would result in severe consequences, including but not limited to additional resolutions declaring the airborne debris to be "non grata'' and unprotected by diplomatic immunity.
If the Looming Apophis Threat proves one thing, it's this: The United States is still the indispensable nation. Yes, yes, it's pathetic, using the threat of human extinction for jingoistic chest-pounding, but unfortunately it's true.
Whom would you trust? Russia or China might figure out a way to eliminate an asteroid on its own, but you suspect there'd be a price; Russia would demand the right to steer one small chunk onto Chechnya, and China would wait until the last second and then casually remark that Taiwan was now officially part of the Mainland government; any questions? BLOW IT UP! WHATEVER! BLOW IT UP!
The United States, on the other hand, would ask nothing but some astronauts from other countries to make it look like an international effort. Americans would love to see the spaceship staffed by Right Stuff guys, complete with taunting messages painted on the bomb, and a guy from Brooklyn who launches the nukes and sneers, "Flatbush Avenue sends its regards, pal.'' But we'd probably be inclusive, just to play nice.
When it comes down to the crunch, people still want a U.S.A. capable of doing the right thing. The world may dream of an America unable to stir itself because it's so very, very sorry about Abu Ghraib, but let a tyrant rise in the backyard and people wonder what the devil is keeping the Yanks.
And what thanks would we get? Six months after the U.S.-led mission destroyed the killer asteroid, everyone would joke about the extra fuel needed to get those fat Americans into orbit. Le Monde would run a cartoon with President Bush smiling at the fragments in the sky: "Ah, reminds me of Iraq!''
One possible solution involves parking an object near Apophis, using gravity to nudge the rock onto a different course. Now, that sounds like a United Nations approach: nonviolent persuasion. And if Apophis falls in the ocean and manages only to inundate Tel Aviv? As some in the U.N. might shrug: One stone; one bird.