Commentary: Emergency Exit

Give the U.S. space program a mission that means something: saving the species.

To the nautical imagery that has helped symbolize the Space Age—rocket ship, space port, Mariner, Magellan, “this new ocean”—add “becalmed,” the word that best describes the U.S. space program’s stagnation.

The blueprint for the Space Age unfolded in October 1951 at the Hayden Planetarium in New York. There, Wernher von Braun presided over the First Annual Symposium on Space Travel, and the small galaxy of visionaries in attendance laid out the plan against which all subsequent plans have been measured. Its heart was the “conquest” of space by men who were to fly shuttles on a series of missions to build a doughnut-shaped station rotating in permanent Earth orbit. Most importantly, the station would itself be an embarkation point for an expedition to start a colony on Mars. The phenomenally ambitious program was depicted in eight installments in Collier’s magazine from 1952 to 1954 (at 15 cents an issue).

In this plan and in later embellishments by thinkers like Arthur C. Clarke, Isaac Asimov, Gerard K. O’Neill, and Carl Sagan, moving into space was seen as an expression of manifest destiny. But it was subverted by President John F. Kennedy’s decision in 1961 to send astronauts to the moon. Apollo was the greatest feat of human exploration in history, an unparalleled technological and managerial tour de force, and a sensational propaganda triumph. But it derailed the grand scheme. Its impact was so great that it forever defined the U.S. space program, transforming it into a series of imitative, relatively short-term goals devoid of overarching purpose.

The space program started to go out of focus on December 14, 1972, when Gene Cernan, the last man on the moon, packed up and went home. It has drifted since then—with the few notable exceptions of robotic planetary exploration, such as Voyager’s epic grand tour, and the triumphs of the Hubble Space Telescope.

The perfect example of how not to do a space program is the International Space Station. Its tortured history epitomizes the quagmire we are now in. President Bush has unilaterally reduced the station’s structure and crew size, infuriating the European Space Agency and sending a message about the thing’s very low priority to an equally indifferent public.

If the U.S. space program is to recapture public enthusiasm and restore unwavering government support, it needs a truly compelling goal. And there is one: planetary defense.

Earth’s treasure can be safeguarded by creating a safe place for life and civilization’s collective record off the planet. That single, overwhelmingly important goal can be achieved only through reusable spacecraft that enable continuous access to space.

The array of threats to Earth, both natural and man-made, is formidable: thermonuclear war; any of several kinds of apocalyptic terrorism, notably nuclear, chemical, or biological; the mutation of a virus—an airborne HIV, for example; a major accident or series of them involving nuclear weapons or nuclear power plants; global warming. Even a limited nuclear war would result in terrible atmospheric and other environmental contamination and planet-wide social and economic upheaval.

And then there are the asteroids. Scientists now believe that at least one asteroid has caused global damage to Earth. Earlier this year, three cosmic visitors suddenly appeared relatively close to home. The first, which was the size of a large shopping mall, passed by in January at a distance of roughly 500,000 miles, which is relatively close in astronomical terms. Two months later, a second, measuring some 200 feet, came within 300,000 miles. And in mid-June a “city-busting” rock the size of the proverbial football field came within 75,000 miles of this planet. It is estimated that several asteroids pass within moon distance of Earth every year. Astronomers like David Morrison at NASA’s Ames Research Center in California and Donald K. Yeomans, who heads NASA’s Near-Earth Object Program Office at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, specialize in cataloging and analyzing potentially hazardous visitors. They and others emphasize repeatedly that there is no foreseeable danger of a collision with an asteroid. But Yeomans, a prudent individual, called the successive passes this year “a wake-up call” for increased scrutiny.

There is of course no cause for panic. Earth is a very seaworthy spacecraft sailing through the cosmic void. But however seaworthy a vessel is, no responsible skipper would go to sea without insurance and a lifeboat. The space program should build the lifeboat.

Comprehensive planetary defense would have two basic purposes: to prevent catastrophe and, failing that, to salvage and restore a severely stricken planet. “Comprehensive” is the key concept; planetary defense would be a single program comprising several parts, some new and others already in place but in need of refinement, like programs of Earth observation.

Satellites in low orbit, such as the new, advanced Landsats, should be directed to make constant methodical observations of Earth in unprecedented detail. They could thus inventory resources and spot natural or man-made trouble in the early stages. Before a volcano erupts, for example, the ground begins to heave slightly and expand, like the crust of a frozen pie that is being heated. Satellite observation in conjunction with the use of seismometers on Earth’s surface could provide warnings for evacuation. Satellites are already monitoring the breakup of the Antarctic ice shelf and the shrinking of the Aral Sea, on the border of Kazakhstan. But global warming needs to be studied more intensively, both on and off the planet. We have the equipment in place, but the efforts are fragmented and incomplete. An international body should coordinate the analysis and recommendations for action.

Determining that a killer asteroid is on a collision course with Earth is worthless unless there is a way to ward it off before impact; likewise, no good effect can come from watching Earth unless nations are prepared to act in concert to ward off catastrophe. If the whole planet gets clobbered anyway, the species needs to be spread out to guarantee survival and restore what can be restored on Earth. That’s where the lifeboat comes in. We should settle a large and self-sustaining colony on the moon.

Eventually, after many generations, the colony would grow so much in size and sophistication that its members could organize and help direct recovery operations on Earth in the event of a planet-wide calamity that comes up short of exterminating everyone. If there were no one on Earth left to save, lunar colonists would be alive to preserve the species and its record. Such a level of capability and self-reliance will be attained only far in the future, but we can begin now by designing the spacecraft to transport us there and increasing current research on closed systems.

And we should establish a record or archive of Earth’s collective life and civilization, including cultural and scientific records and biological specimens, so they could be replicated in the event of widespread destruction anywhere on Earth. It would not be a time capsule—time capsules become increasingly useless as time passes—but a continually updated repository. Some of us have formed an organization, the Alliance to Rescue Civilization (or ARC, as in “archive”), to create and maintain such an extensive record. Chemistry professor Robert Shapiro, my colleague at New York University, conceived the idea, and the others designing it include Steven M. Wolfe, a space specialist who was an aide to the late Representative George Brown of California; Ray Erikson, an aerospace engineer who has participated in many NASA programs; Sean Hadley, a lawyer; and myself. The Space Frontier Foundation is providing initial support.

ARC would by definition be a highly cooperative international effort, perhaps run by a new, permanent agency of the United Nations. It would not, however, be controlled by government. Its essential funding would have to come from corporations and foundations—the private sector—so it could not be held hostage by changes in political administrations or even systems over the course of decades and centuries.

Planetary defense is an overwhelmingly compelling reason to send people to space. It is time to shed the notion that people from Earth will advance outward to our planetary neighbors because we have a genetic predisposition to explore. There is no public will to land on one or more of the planets as a political stunt and no cost-benefit analysis that supports plans to exploit other planets commercially. It is time for a space program that addresses the multiple perils faced by Earth.


William E. Burrows is a contributing editor to Air & Space/Smithsonian and the author of a number of books on space, including This New Ocean: The Story of the First Space Age.

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