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No one ever went broke raising the fear level in Washington. All you need is a credible Red Menace, organized-crime Mob or jihadist terror cell, and Congress will have little choice but to throw money at it until it goes away. In fear-mongering circles, few threats can top extinction-level events—witness the treasure spent on strategic nuclear deterrence during the Cold War. But so far NASA and its backers on Capitol Hill haven't gotten much traction raising the fear level on a demonstrated planetary life-ender—the impact and aftermath of an asteroid collision.

Scientists are pretty sure that a space rock at least 10 km (6 mi.) across slammed into Earth 66 million years ago, lowering the curtain on the Cretaceous era and the terrestrial dinosaurs that had thrived in it. Impacts may have caused earlier mass die-offs; the evidence is less clear. A few years back a small coterie of politicos in Congress and at NASA got the bright idea that “planetary” defense would sell as well as the regular kind, so the asteroid redirect mission (ARM) concept was born.

The idea attracted engineers at the space agency who had studied the hard stuff in school, and it picked up steam when a much smaller meteor exploded over Chelyabinsk, Russia, on Feb. 15, 2013, generating a shock wave that shattered windows for miles and injured almost 1,500 people. Viral videos from the liability-conscious Russian drivers' dashboard cameras didn't hurt either.

By then NASA—with congressional blessing—already was seeking potentially deadly near-Earth objects (NEO), but the mission to capture an asteroid, nudge it into a stable orbit around the Moon and visit it with astronauts was going nowhere. Given early response on Capitol Hill to NASA's call for a modest increase in its $105 million ARM budget for this year, it still isn't.

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