The chances of Earth getting hit without warning by one of the big ones are "extremely low, so low that it's ridiculous. But the smaller ones are quite different," Schweickart said. He warned: "If we get hit by one of them, it's most likely we wouldn't have known anything about it before it hit."
Chodas said the meteor strike in Russia is "like Mother Nature is showing us what a small one -- a tiny one, really -- can do."
All this points up to the need for more money for tracking of near-Earth objects, according to Schweickart and the former space shuttle and station astronaut who now heads up the B612 Foundation, Ed Lu.
A few years ago, Schweickart and others recommended that NASA launch a $250 million-a-year program to survey asteroids and work up a deflection plan. After 10 years of cataloging, the annual price tag could drop to $75 million, they said.
"Unfortunately, NASA never acted on any of our recommendations," he lamented. "So the result of it is that instead of having $250 million a year and working on this actively, NASA now has $20 million . . . . It's peanuts."
Congress immediately weighed in Friday.
"Today's events are a stark reminder of the need to invest in space science," said Rep. Lamar Smith, R-Texas, chairman of the House Committee on Science, Space and Technology. He called for a hearing in the coming weeks.
Bill Cooke, head of the Meteoroid Environments Office at NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala., said the space agency takes asteroid threats seriously and has poured money into looking for ways to better spot them. Annual spending on asteroid-detection at NASA has gone from $4 million a few years ago to $20 million now.
"NASA has recognized that asteroids and meteoroids and orbital debris pose a bigger problem than anybody anticipated decades ago," Cooke said.
Schweickart's B612 Foundation -- named after the asteroid in Antoine de Saint-Exupery's "Le Petit Prince" -- has been unwilling to wait on the sidelines and is putting together a privately funded mission to launch an infrared telescope that would orbit the sun to hunt and track asteroids.
Its need cannot be underestimated, Schweickart warned. Real life is unlike movies such as "Armageddon" and "Deep Impact," he said. Scientists will need to know 15, 20 or 30 years in advance of a killer rock's approach to undertake an effective asteroid-deflection campaign, he said, because it would take a long time for the spacecraft to reach the asteroid for a good nudge.
"That's why we want to find them now," he said.
As Chodas observed Friday, "It's like a shooting gallery here."