Homo habilis, the first of the genus whose only extant species is homo sapien, first emerged just two million years ago. In evolutionary and geological time, then, human beings are barely a pimple on a dimple on the face of creation. Frogs, for example, are about 250 million years old and birds can trace their ancestry all the way back to the avian dinosaurs. Yet, earlier this week, the new kids on the fauna block went farther than any other living creature on the planet in safeguarding their existence against an extinction-level event.
An unmanned spacecraft, launched 10 months ago, collided with an asteroid — which itself was moving at an astounding pace — at 15,000 kmph, destroying itself. By doing so, NASA’s DART (Double Asteroid Redirection Test) has come very close to hitting its mark. The objective of the mission is to ensure that asteroids capable of reaching the earth’s surface and causing loss of life — even extinction-level events like the one that is widely believed to have ended the reign of the non-avian dinosaurs — can be intercepted and “nudged” into changing course. Statistically speaking, given the sheer number of such bodies making their way across the cosmos, the probability of one reaching the earth’s surface is 1. So, kudos are clearly in order to the fine people at NASA and Johns Hopkins University, who pulled off the feat that will almost certainly save lives one day.
Unfortunately, a rock from space is only one of the existential threats that the last of the hominins face. Even without heavenly intervention, nuclear weapons and/or climate change could end “life as we know it”. And there is no scientific solution to the greed, gluttony and capacity for violent self-destruction that homo sapiens have shown themselves to be capable of. That requires a collective effort that is far more difficult than DART and has so often missed the mark.