Rusty's Blog

Rusty’s Planetary Defense – Time Out For The Big Picture | Part Four

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Enough with numbers and the technical bits for the moment.  I want to take some time early on to touch on the philosophical, the overview, the big picture of just what it is we’re about with this initiative to prevent asteroid impacts.

In 2001, when those of us who formed B612 Foundation first got together, we knew that asteroids could hit anywhere on the planet, but we did not realize for several years that one could not prevent an impact without, in the process, temporarily putting at risk people who were no where near the impact site.  People in other countries; on other continents; across oceans.  It took us awhile to understand that, for any potential asteroid impact, there extended across the entire planet a “risk corridor” representing the uncertainty in precisely where the asteroid would impact, if it were indeed going to impact Earth.

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This risk corridor picture became even more important a bit later when we figured out that a deflection (forget, for the moment, the Hollywood solution of blowing it to smithereens) was effectively “dragging” or “jumping” the impact point along that same line across the Earth’s surface until it was off the Earth entirely.  At which point (good news) everyone is now safe.  But (bad news) if something interrupts the deflection part way through, the asteroid is going to hit elsewhere along the risk corridor from it’s original “act of God” spot.  Enter geopolitics, liability, risk sharing, national self interest, etc, etc.

Not only is a pending asteroid impact a planetary threat but the “solution”, a preventive deflection (or diversion) requires risk sharing (temporary, assuming a successful deflection).  Message… we are all in this together… the threat to life from a pending impact cannot be prevented without people (read nations, people, politicians) not originally threatened accepting a temporary risk to eliminate the threat to all.

Is our collective survival instinct robust enough to overcome our national and personal self interest?  The first substantial impact threat that materializes will unavoidably confront humanity with this ethical dilemma.

I remember clearly how I first “got” the distinction between my own death and the extinction of humanity.  I was reading Jonathan Schell’s Fate of the Earth (1982) where in considering the consequences of nuclear war he explored in very clear language the qualitative difference we all hold deeply, if sometimes unrealized, between individual death and the termination of all humanity.  Of course an extremely small percentage of asteroids that impact Earth will create a significant loss of any life, let alone the extinction of humanity.  Nevertheless, there are big ones out there among the small ones and left to chance it will happen.   Tomorrow; next year; on my granddaughter’s wedding day; just before humans terraform Mars.  Ask Mr. T. Rex.

What does it say if we are within a proverbial stone’s throw of being able to predict all significant asteroid impacts decades ahead and have the technology in hand to prevent them – and we don’t?  Geopolitically, we don’t?

Especially if it costs $1.98?  Well, make that $300m/year for 10 years and then $75m/year thereafter, which equates to ~1.7% of NASA’s budget for the first 10 years and <0.5% of it thereafter?  That, adjudged the NASA Advisory Committee’s Task Force on Planetary Defense (http://www.nasa.gov/pdf/493115main_10-10_TFPD_BRIEFING.pdf), was what it would cost to be fully prepared to protect life here on our home planet from asteroid impacts; a full inventory of the 1,000,000+ objects that circulate past Earth that could cause loss of life on impact, plus having demonstrated the basic deflection technologies available today, and then dropping back to continual tracking of the census of NEOs at issue until we find one with our address on it.  Then, of course the $1B or so to mount a deflection campaign would come into play as needed; perhaps once per 100 years or so.  Or 200 years, or 500 years… depending on how we value life.  But… we would be ready… we would have done what we can to prevent a potentially species ending cosmic natural hazard from ending this marvelous evolutionary experiment we are all part of here in our little corner of the universe.

Don’t we have that shared responsibility?  And just who is the “we” in the paragraphs above?  NASA?  Certainly.  The European Space Agency?  Yep.  Russia, China, India, Japan, and other future space-faring nations?  You bet.  All nation states?  I’d say so.  Isn’t security, the defense of their citizens, one of the (if not the) primary functions of all governments?  But what is government other than a system of organization for life to manage and express the values it collectively holds?

Unless we express these values, however, we can’t expect the governance systems of the world to respond as we wish.  The squeaky wheel gets the grease, as they say.  Business gets attention.  Power?  Definitely.  Potholes in the road?  Yessir.  Even science and environment.  But planetary defense?  The only issue that can actually wipe us out; sooner or later; but eventually?  Not present.  So now comes Asteroid Day.

We who, if we think about it, propose that we can and should subtly and carefully adjust very slightly the clockwork of the solar system in order to enhance the survival of life here on planet Earth must accept, and welcome, this great responsibility.  We can do this!  Think about that amazing but true statement.

Many times when I end a public presentation I show a slide taken from the Hubble ultra deep field image.  There are 10s of 1000s of points of light in the slide, none of which is a star, each of which is a galaxy.  Each point billions of stars.  For me it is impossible to conceive that there is not out there somewhere among the billions of stars in the billions of galaxies a diverse community of sentient beings each from its own home star, not unlike ours.  If such a community of sentient beings exists they will each have passed this great test… they will have prevented extinction by protecting life on their home planets until they achieved the ability to spread life outward from their local womb.  Now it’s our turn to face this great challenge… this great entrance exam qualifying us for eligibility to join this cosmic community.

This is no small calling.  Will we sufficiently recognize that we are one life on this small planet?  That our common survival ultimately depends on elevating our vision above the multiplicity of smaller interests that separate us?  I believe so.  Exam day is here.  Let’s get on it!

READ PART FIVE  |  JUMP BACK TO PART THREE

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Rusty Schweickart

The author Rusty Schweickart

Russell L. (Rusty) Schweickart is a retired business and government executive and from 2002-2015 served as Chairman of the Board and Chairman Emeritus of B612 Foundation. The organization, a non-profit private foundation, champions the development and testing of spaceflight concepts to protect the Earth from future asteroid impacts.

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