With a grant from the National Science Foundation, Cassidy launched ANSMET, as the program is known. The NSF, NASA and the Smithsonian jointly run it. The ANSMET logo is playful: A penguin in a baseball hat running across the continent, a flaming space rock falling into his glove.
Harvey and other scientists credit the program’s longevity to Cassidy’s vision: He insisted that all finds be made available to any scientist in the world. “It almost sounds ridiculous,” said Harvey. “Who goes out and finds a new Egyptian pyramid and says, ‘Hey, you guys study it and I’ll watch’? That’s basically what it is.”
Harvey pinned the cost of ANSMET at about $1 million a year. He said it’s a bargain; Cassidy called it “the poor man’s space program.” Sending robots or humans into space to collect such rocks would costs tens of billions. “It’s a unique way to explore the solar system, and we are doing it inexpensively, minimizing risk, and bringing home the bacon,” said Harvey. “In this case, the bacon is space rocks.”
To McCain and Sen. Tom Coburn (R-Okla.), though, that bacon smells like pork. In August 2010, the pair listed what they called the 100 most wasteful projects funded by the 2009 stimulus act. A $600,000 grant to ANSMET clocked in at No. 75. The report suggested that the program had collected enough meteorites already.
Meteorite scientists argue that isn’t true. Each year brings unexpected finds, they say. The 2006-2007 season returned two chunks whose origins are still unknown, which is unusual, said Welzenbach. The rare Martian rocks hold special interest, too, as one found in 1981 generated excitement in 1996 when a NASA scientist asserted that it showed evidence of fossil microbes — life on Mars. That claim has since been roundly rejected.
But there is no doubt that the program has found tons and tons of space rocks. Just this month, the Smithsonian finished upgrading the meteorite storage facility in its Museum Support Center in Suitland to hold them all. Inside a clean room with triple-filtered air, 14 gleaming NASA-designed cabinets — each creepily outfitted with six white gloves sticking straight out, inflated by a constant flow of inert nitrogen gas — stand ready to accept thousands more meteorites. The Smithsonian recently spent about $500,000 to buy 10 new cabinets.
Harvey expects this year’s expedition to hit a special mark. When they find their 299th meteorite of the season, “it will be as close as we can estimate to our 20,000th” since 1976, he said. Then “the team will break out our, uh, grape juice.”