CCNet 10/2003 -  4 February 2003

"It has become important for [OECD] member states and civil
protection organisations to start thinking about the possibility of an
impact and not to fall into the typical situation of lack of
management tools to handle an unexpected crisis like the impact of an
asteroid. Our first recommendation is to start doing simulations and think
about how we could manage, at a global level, such a crisis... OECD
countries should increase the number of ground-based observations of
these bodies and better co-ordinate their observations. We basically
have the tools to create a better understanding and better discovery of
these objects."
--Marcello Cordini, European Space Agency, 3 February 2003

"In the wake of the Columbia tragedy, the arguments of the pro-space
constituency are strong, but not strong enough. If space advocates
can't bring themselves to make the most powerful arguments of
all-that space is vital to human freedom, even to human survival-then
their cause will falter as the soaring spirit of heroism and martyrdom
fades, and as the counter-arguments of the cost-benefiting,
bean-counting critics gain footing."
--James Pinkerton, 4 February 2003

    Insurance Day, 3 February 2003


    Michael Paine <>

    Jonathan Shanklin <>

    Brian Carnell

    The Washington Post, 4 February 2003

    Tech Central Station, 4 February 2003

    Birmingham Post, 31 January 2003


>From Insurance Day, 3 February 2003


THERE is an American company St Lawrence of Florida which will insure you
against any peril coming from outer space, be it an asteroid crashing on to
the earth or abduction by aliens. The latter costs $22.95 for cover of $10m.
And yes, there are people who take out such policies.

Specific protection against damage caused by asteroids, comets and other
space debris is not something that insurance companies are often called on
to consider, no doubt because no claim has ever been made under this
heading. But should it happen, policyholders need have few fears.

The Insurance Information Institute in New York explained that "all major
carriers in the US will cover anything that falls out of the sky". What if
cities were wiped out and claims ran into the millions? "They'd still pay.
Though not if the entire country were destroyed," said a spokeswoman.

This seems to go for the UK and the rest of Europe, too, where normal
household and motor policies will pay out, wherever the space debris comes

In practice, demand for specific insurance coverage against "natural" space
risks will be limited, however, by the fact that, as Brian Spark, deputy
space underwriter for the Brit space consortium at Lloyd's puts it, "the
risk is infinitesimally small".

But is the industry wise to disregard the possibility of asteroid damage
completely? No less a body that the Organisation for Economic Co-operation
and Development (OECD) has just held a conference bringing together
researchers and government policy-makers from its member countries "to
review efforts currently devoted to dealing with the hazard and consider the
need for new policies and actions".

Our knowledge about this phenomenon has grown considerably in recent years,
says the OECD. "Very large impacts have in the past been catastrophic but
are, fortunately, very infrequent. However, detectable misses by mid-sized
asteroids are quite common," it claims.

The OECD's Global Science Forum's workshop, which took place in Frascati,
Italy, on January 20-22 and which was co-sponsored by the European Space
Agency (ESA), was designed "to allow government officials and scientists to
examine the threat of impacts by these near-earth objects".

"The conference was basically organised to raise the level of attention to
the matter by the OECD countries and relevant organisations which might have
a say in civil protection," says Marcello Cordini, head of solar system
exploration missions at ESA, and ESA's representative at the conference.

"It has become important for member states and civil protection
organisations to start thinking about the possibility of an impact and not
to fall into the typical situation of lack of management tools to handle an
unexpected crisis like the impact of an asteroid," Mr Cordini said.

"Our first recommendation is to start doing simulations and think about how
we could manage, at a global level, such a crisis. There is no political or
other organisation which enables the re-location of millions of people but
it doesn't require great effort to start the civil protection people
thinking about what we could and should do," he said.

Mr Cordini said OECD countries should increase the number of ground-based
observations of these bodies and better co-ordinate their observations. "We
basically have the tools to create a better understanding and better
discovery of these objects," he said. A second need is to harness today's
space technology to the threat.

"We should be able to immobilise a small body of up to 500 m in diameter by
hitting it with a spacecraft or other big mass and creating a deviation.

"If we have, say, five years notice, the space agencies today already have
the technology to deviate that body," Mr Cordini said.

Copyright 2003 Insurance Day


>From, 4 February 2003

By Robert Roy Britt

Large asteroid impacts have nasty side effects, as any dinosaur could have
told you were she not obliterated by one of these calamity combos 65 million
years ago. The ground shakes. Fire arcs across the sky and beyond the
horizon. Clouds of debris race around the planet and blot the Sun out for

At least that's what theory tells us.

he scenario has never played out in modern times, scientists don't really
know exactly what will happen when the next space rock slams into Earth.

One long-supposed incendiary side-effect is enhanced volcanic activity,
which can make life pretty miserable for survivors who find themselves on or
near the flanks of a newborn plume of molten rock. Some scientists suspect
the Hawaiian Islands were born of an asteroid impact. 

Volcanoes bring the planet's scorching innards and deadly gases to the
surface. A big one would kick choking substances high into the air and make
worse the already suffocated sky above a rattled planet.

These multiple effects of an impact are the potential makings of mass
extinctions, some scientists have been saying in recent years. Entire
species would falter as temperatures plunge and food sources disappear. The
overall effects of an asteroid 1 kilometer wide (0.62 miles) or bigger could
wipe out crops and bring human civilization to its knees.

There has been some evidence, though just a little, to verify this complex
view that extinctions have multiple causes and that asteroids could be at
the root of some of them.

Other researchers aren't convinced that asteroids are quite so devastating.

Now a comprehensive review of evidence provides more support for one aspect
of the idea, that impacts beget serious volcanism.

Dallas Abbott of the Lamont-Doherty Earth Institute and Ann Isley from the
State University of New York at Oswego examined existing impact data going
back 4 billion years.

They found 10 major peaks in activity -- stretches of time when asteroids
and comets hit the planet in relative flurries. During nine of the 10 peaks,
volcanic activity also peaked, as measured by evidence of magma from deep
inside Earth, in the mantle, flowing to the surface. Further, two prominent
lulls in impact activity also matched up with periods of decreased

The volcanic activity is most likely a tertiary effect, Abbott and Isley
figure, resulting from the massive earthquakes triggered by the impact.
Other studies have shown that the shaking would reverberate through the
planet and even cause serious surface earthquakes on the other side of the
globe, at a point called the antipode.

"Large impacts generate large earthquakes," Abbott explains. "These
earthquakes can trigger volcanic eruptions. If the earthquake is large
enough it could do more, it could make the eruption more intense by allowing
more magma to escape."

Only about 1 percent of the magma beneath any given volcano is estimated to
ever make it to the surface, Abbott said. "So, lots of magma is already
there, you just need to make it easier for the magma to get out."

And how does that happen? The answer lies in the surprising fragility of our

While the exact mechanism isn't known, Abbott and Isley suggest it involves
a cracking of Earth's crust, which allows otherwise trapped magma to flow
from deep within the planet. New boundaries may even be created between the
major plates that define the continents and which more or less float on the
planet's mostly molten interior.

It is also possible, they say, that newly generated cracks allow the
planet's molten core to mix with material in the mantle, higher up. The
added heat would melt mantle material and intensify existing plumes that
push to or near to the surface.

It all sounds as if a bit of Hell itself clamors to the surface to kick the
addled Earth while its down.

"Our work means that a combination of effects may cause mass extinctions,"
Abbott said. "All of these effects could be direct and indirect effects of a
large impact."

The work is based on a sketchy history, it should be pointed out.
Earthquakes, volcanoes, and the general movement of the planet's dozen or so
major crustal plates tend to eliminate ancient evidence. Volcanoes take
stuff that used to be on the surface, but was long ago folded inward and
melted, and spit it back out in unrecognizable new forms.

So scientists find very little to go on once they reach back more than a few
million years.

Abbott points out that only one of about six of all predicted impact craters
on the continents have been found. Almost no evidence exists for rocks that
struck oceans, which cover two-thirds of the planet.

The Moon, because it is geologically inactive, retains a record of past
impacts. The visible craters there help scientists estimate the rate at
which impacts must also have occurred on Earth, since we share essentially
the same shooting gallery in space as far as incoming objects are concerned.

Almost all researchers agree that prior to about 3.8 billion years ago, the
solar system was a tremendously wild place as Earth and other planets and
moons were tasked to sweep up the detritus of planetary formation. Impacts
were a constant feature. Sporadic busy periods continued thereafter until
the bulk of leftover asteroids were confined to a belt between Mars and

The new study involved actual impact craters found on Earth plus evidence of
past impacts that show up as specific materials in layers of the planet's
crust dated to specific times. The researchers also examined the history of
strong plumes of volcanic activity.

Abbott said she's 97 percent confident in the study's results, meaning there
is a 3 percent chance that the correlations are instead coincidental.

No asteroids are currently on collision courses with Earth, though hundreds
of very large rocks still roam through our neck of the woods, along with
thousands or perhaps millions of smaller ones that could cause heavy
regional damage. Experts say the odds of a major impact in any given year
are low. Eventually, most likely centuries or even many thousands of years
from now, another significant impact is probable, however.

The new study is detailed the January issue of Earth and Planetary Science

Copyright 2003,


>From Michael Paine <>

62nd Annual Meteoritical Society Meeting 5107.pdf

S. Master1 and M. K. Pandit2

1 Department of Geology, University of the Witwatersrand, P.Bag 3, WITS
2050, Johannesburg, South Africa,
2 Department of Geology, University of Rajasthan, Jaipur, India,

The Ramgarh structure, located at 25°20'N, 76°37'30"E, in the Kota District of eastern
Rajasthan, India, is a prominent isolated 3 km-diameter circular feature
rising 150 m above a level plain situated within flat-lying Neoproterozoic
sandstones and shales of the Vindhyan Supergroup [1-6]. Topographic maps [7]
and satellite imagery [11] clearly show the structure to be a crater with a
raised rim having steep inner flanks and shallower outer flanks, and having
the appearance of a square with rounded corners. The origin of the Ramgahr
structure has been variously attributed to a kimberlite pipe [2], a diapir
[1], a meteorite impact [1-3], a combination of magmatism and tectonism [4],
and to a mechanism of centripetal rheid flow of kaolin-rich shales with
associated cross-folding [5, 6].

The complete absence of volcanic or intrusive rocks around the Ramgarh structure has been
confirmed by a vertical 452 m-deep borehole drilled in 1981/82 in the centre
of the structure [5]. The lithologies found in the borehole consist of the
normal Vindhyan succession of shales, siltstones and sandstones that
underlie the rocks within the crater, but uplifted about 1 km above their
usual stratigraphic position in the region. The shales in the central
borehole display tight upright isoclinal folds, together with closely spaced
normal and reversed brittle faults [5]. The hematitic quartzitic Bhander
sandstones that constitute the outer rim of the structure display radial
outward dips that steepen from as little as 14° on the outer flanks to
60-70°, and in some cases almost 90°, near the top of the rim. These
quartzites also have radially directed broad open folds with shallow outward
plunges [5].

Although morphologically the Ramgarh structure closely resembles other terrestrial impact
craters [1, 8], the evidence for an impact origin hitherto presented has
been scanty and equivocal, non-diagnostic or unconfirmed. Thus, although
Crawford [1] reported that "a specimen found in colluvium near the centre of
the feature seems shatter-coned", no other workers in the area have reported
shatter cones, and we also failed to find any shatter cones during three
days of very intensive searching along the rim of the structure. The finding
of granulated quartz with anomalous birefringence [2] is inconclusive and
non-diagnostic. Abundant shattering and brecciation of the Ramgarh
sandstones has been reported by all researchers [1-6], but by itself this is
not diagnostic of impact processes. The reported finding of magnetic pieces
that "could have been part of a nickel-iron meteorite" [3] has not been

We examined the sandstones of the SE and SW rims of the Ramgahr crater from 4-6 February, 1999.
A striking feature of most outcrops and loose boulders of quartzite on the rim is the presence of
abundant closely-spaced fractures. At one locality on the SE rim, we found
quartzites displaying multiply-striated joint surfaces (MSJS) similar to
those from the Sinamwenda impact crater [13].

Our petrographic studies indicate that most of the Ramgahr quartzites consist of well-cemented
quartz grains, together with accessory authigenic hematite and detrital
tourmaline grains, some of which were shattered in situ. Some quartz grains
display undulose extinction and deformation twin lamellae. In every thin
section examined of rocks from widely spaced localities on the western,
southern and eastern rims of the crater, we found two or more quartz grains
displaying between one and three sets of planar deformation features (PDFs),
which are visible under high magnification (400x) in both plane polarised
light and under crossed polars. Many of these PDFs are decorated with planar
fluid inclusion trails. Since PDFs are characteristically produced in quartz
under high shock pressures (>5 GPa) [14], we infer that the PDF-containing
Ramgarh quartzites have undergone intense shock metamorphism. This evidence,
together with the crater morphology, the abundant brecciation, the MSJS, the
radial folds, the deformed central uplift, and the absence of any igneous
activity, provides strong and unequivocal support for a meteorite impact
origin of the Ramgarh structure.


Lunar and Planetary Science XXXIII (2002) 1129.pdf

V. K. Nayak, Department of Applied
Geology, University of Saugar, saugar-3 (M.P.), India.

The details of a meteorite impact crater at Lonar (19°58´N : 76°31´E) and
astroblemes at Ramgarh
(25°20´N : 76°37´30˛E) and Shiva in the Indian subcontinent are furnished
and their significant
features highlighted.

Lonar Impact Crater

More than three decades of researches of the Lonar crater I Buldhana
District, Maharashtra State, have confirmed its meteorite impact origin
(Nayak, 1972; Fredriksson et al., 1973a; Fudali et al., 1980). The Lonar
crater, 1830 m diameter, 150 m deep with a shallow saline lake in the floor,
is unique in being the only terrestrial impact crater in basalts of the
Cretaceous-Eocene age. It provides the closest analog with the Moon's
craters (Fredriksson et al., 1973b;
Fredriksson et al., 1978; Schaal, 1976). The nature of target basaltic
rocks, various degrees of shock metamorphic signatures, nature of shocked
and unshocked basalts, macro and micro breccias, glass spherules and
impactites have provided definitive evidences for impact origin of the Lonar
crater (Kieffer et al., 1976). The characteristics shock metamorphic
features are compared and correlated with those of the lunar craters in a
planetary context (Nayak, 2001). Such a comparative exercise of the Lonar
crater with the lunar craters will not only help to unravel the
extra-terrestrial geoscientific mysteries of the planets but also the
evolution of the solar system.

Ramgarh Astrobleme

A spectacular annular structure at Ramgarh in Kota District, Rajasthan,
covers an area of 16 sq km within the Late Proterozoic Bhander Group of
rocks of the Vindhyan Supergroup. It has an outer diameter of 4 kms depth to
diameter ratio 0.05 and about 200 m height of the rim from the surrounding
plain. A raised rim, quaquaversal dips, somewhat inverted topography and
uplifting of rocks have been reported. The origin of this enigmatic feature
is still a debated subject. An appraisal of various views and suggestions
proposed from time to time was presented (Nayak,
1997). These are: meteorite impact, kimberlite and carbonatite intrusions,
tectonism, combined action of tectonic and volcanic activity, subsidence,
cryptovolcanism and dome etc. These explanations for the formation of the
Ramgarh structure are mainly based on its geological, geomorphological,
lithostratigraphical and structural characteristic. Besides, Ramgarh has
also been described in the Astronaut's Guide as an impact crater with ring
of hills an small central peak from the Landsat image (Grieve et al., 1988).
Balasundaram and Dube (1973) observed shear fracturing, granulation and
anomalous birefringence in quartz grain and concorded with Crawford's (1972)
suggestion of impact origin of Ramgarh. However, definitive meteoritic
impact signatures are lacking and at present the structure should be
considered as 'Ramgarh Astrobleme'. It is suggested that a well-planned
multi-disciplinary effort is imperative to resolve the origin of the Ramgarh
Astrobleme and thus make a significant contribution to the Earth's cratering

Shiva Astrobleme

A potential KT impact scar at the India-Seychelles rift margin has been
interpreted as 'Shiva Crater' (Chatterjee and Rudra, 1996). It is an oblong
shaped structure, 600 km long, 450 km wide and 12 km deep within the Deccan
Traps and the underlying Precambrian granite. The impact interpretation of
Shiva is based on subsurface stratigraphy, geophysical data, Bombay offshore
oilfield and associated alkaline intrusives within the Deccan Traps. The KT
boundary age of the Shiva structure was inferred from its Deccan lava floor,
Palaeocene age of the overlying
sediments, isotope dating (~65 Ma) of presumed melt rocks and the Carlsberg
rifting event. Besides, seismic reflection data and India-Seychelles plate
reconstruction at 65Ma indicate a buried oblong shape impact structure of
Phanerozoic age. The structure shows the morphology of a complex impact
crater and basin, a district uplift as series of peaks, an annular trough
and a slumped rim. Chatterjee and Rudra (1996) conjectured the oblong shape
of the structure as a result of an oblique impact of a speculated 40 km
diameter meteorite on the western continental shelf of India, in a SW-NE
trajectory at about 65MA. The significance of the synchronous and near
antipodal positions of the Shiva crater and the Chicxulub crater in the
Yucatán Peninsula, Mexico, are highlighted. Although, Chatterjee and Rudra
(1996) have strongly argued an impact origin of the Shiva structure but
definitive evidence of shock metamorphic signatures are lacking. At present,
therefore, the Shiva structure should be considered as 'Shiva Astrobleme'.


>From Jonathan Shanklin <>

As is often the case, as soon as you make a statement about comets, they do
exactly the opposite. I was recently caught out, when I said at the RAS
meeting in December and in Astronomy Now, that I thought it unlikely that
there would be any more visual discoveries by amateur observers.  Kudo and
Fujikawa promptly discovered their comet.

The same comet has certainly caused some  confusion in its present transit
through the SOHO coronagraphs and clearly appeared significantly fainter
around perihelion than before or after.  This could be down to several
causes: vignetting or radial processing of the SOHO images, or significant
phase effects around perihelion.  It is clearly now much brighter than 4th
magnitude, and perhaps brighter than 2nd magnitude.

When preparing light curves of comets it is essential to make sure that
instrumental effects are taken into consideration, particularly when
attempting to predict future brightness. If these are ignored and
observations made with large aperture telescopes included with binocular
observations, then a light curve can appear to give high values for the log
r parameter. This is the case for comet 2002 V1, where observations in
December were made with telescopes in the 20 - 40 cm range and observations
in January with binoculars of perhaps 8cm aperture. There is no evidence for
brightening as 15 log r in January and for much of the month the comet has
been brightening as 10 log r.  Over the last week the rate of brightening
may have slowed. It could however still rival Venus at perihelion and will
be worth looking for in the evening sky over the next couple of weeks.
Lying below the square of Pegasus it is currently barely visible to the
naked eye and best seen in binoculars, showing a short tail.

Jonathan Shanklin
British Antarctic Survey, Madingley Road, Cambridge CB3 0ET, England


By Brian Carnell

Monday, February 3, 2003

In the wake of the Challenger disaster there was a myth spread by some
conservatives that went like this: the sealant used on the O-rings that
failed was changed from an asbestos-formulated sealant to a non-asbestos
version. Hysteria over asbestos, therefore, led directly to the Challenger

This turns out to be less than accurate, and made me suspicious when someone
on a mailing list I read posted that environmentalists had forced a changed
in the foam insulation sprayed on the shuttle's external fuel tank. The
reformulated spray-on insulation, so the story goes, was known to have
problems with flaking -- exactly the problem that seems likely to have
caused the recent Columbia disaster.

Unlike the Challenger/asbestos claim, however, this one seems to actually
have some basis in fact. A 1999 NASA press release on the matter has been
yanked off the web, but is still available thanks to Google. Here's the full

1999 Release: 99-1 Flight tests at the NASA Dryden Flight Research Center,
Edwards, Calif., recently demonstrated that a new type of insulation foam
used on the Space Shuttle's giant external tank remains intact under some of
the dynamic environments seen during the initial stage of the Shuttle's ascent.
Mimicking a Space Shuttle launch profile, an F-15B research aircraft based
at NASA Dryden flew a series of missions to evaluate the dynamic response
characteristics of the new insulation material. The Shuttle External Tank
Experiment involved six research flights over a two-week period by Dryden's
F-15B in partnership with NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center, Huntsville,
Ala., and the Michoud Assembly Facility near New Orleans, La.

"This experiment was a perfect example of the versatility of the F-15B and
its Flight Test Fixture," said Dave Richwine, Dryden's F-15B project
manager. "It shows how we can customize our capability for any particular
experiment's requirements."

The experiment was part of an effort to determine why small particles of
spray-on foam insulation flaked off of the inter-tank section of the
external fuel tank on Space Shuttle mission STS-87 as the Shuttle ascended.
The new lightweight insulation material was developed to comply with an EPA
mandate to reduce ozone-depleting chemicals released into the atmosphere.
Although such flaking or erosion of the insulation off the external tank
posed no safety hazard to the Shuttle or its crew, engineers wanted to
determine its cause to prevent future maintenance and operational problems.
The flights aboard Dryden's F-15B were just one of many tests to which the
new insulation material is being subjected.

Initial results of the flight tests at Dryden, which were designed to
replicate the pressure environment the Shuttle encounters in the first 65
seconds after launch, indicate the new foam survived the tests in perfect
shape, with no evidence of flaking or erosion found.

For the tests on Dryden's F-15B, test panels covered with the foam
insulation were mounted on the left side of the Flight Test Fixture that is
carried underneath the aircraft's center fuselage. Six different panel
configurations were flown one on each flight. Five of the panels were
covered with the insulation now used on the sidewalls of the Shuttle's
external tank, while one was covered with an alternate formulation of
slightly higher density that is used on the dome atop the tank. While
several panels were left in wavy as-sprayed configurations, others were
finely machined to duplicate the thrust panel rib structure of the thrust
panels where the solid rocket boosters are attached to the new
"super-lightweight" external tanks now flown on Shuttle missions. Four
panels had the ribs aligned with the airflow, while two others had the ribs
mounted vertically in order to simulate the complex airflow around the
Shuttle and its external tank during its ascent.

On each flight, Dryden research pilot Dana Purifoy flew the F-15B through a
series of side-to-side yaw maneuvers beginning at 7,300 feet altitude. He
then increased speed and altitude in a stair-step approach, finally zooming
up to 61,000 feet at speeds of up to Mach 1.5 (1.5 times the speed of sound)
before descending for landing.

"It was important that the F-15B could match part of our (shuttle launch)
profile, and it does a fantastic job of doing that," said aerodynamicist Roy
Steinbock of Lockheed-Martin Michoud Space Systems, staff engineer on the

"Our main goal was to try to match the dynamic pressure history (that the
external tank encounters during a shuttle launch). The Dryden F-15B can
match the high-altitude, low-pressure environment that the Shuttle
encounters, and can test a multitude of Mach numbers in (one) flight. That's
something we cannot do anywhere else--we can't replicate that in a wind

"Marshall's objectives included flying at Mach 1.5, reaching 60,000 feet and
completing six research flights in two weeks," added Richwine. "We were
proud to be able to meet Marshall's performance and schedule objectives for
this experiment."

"The successful completion of the tests at Dryden, along with wind tunnel
testing at the Arnold Engineering Development Center in Tullohoma, Tenn.,
hot gas testing at Marshall and a multitude of other tests, has given us
additional data to further improve the foam insulation on the Space
Shuttle's External Tank," said Parker Counts, Marshall's Space Shuttle
External Tank program manager. "This was a fine example of the team work
between NASA centers and other government agencies." --nasa-- NASA Dryden
Flight Research Center Public Affairs Office Edwards, CA 93523 (661)
276-3449 FAX (661) 276-3566"

The line about the flaking posing no risk to the shuttle itself is downright


>From The Washington Post, 4 February 2003
By Charles Krauthammer

First we will mourn the brave and beautiful who fell out of the sky. Then,
however, we will proceed to the usual post-catastrophe ritual: investigation
and recrimination. We will search for the culprits. Some human agent will be
hauled out to bear the blame. And we will search for the cause: flying foam,
wing damage, insulating tiles, whatever -- we will find it. But we will miss
the point.

The point is that the first 150 or so miles of space travel -- braving the
gravitational well of Earth and shooting through the atmosphere -- is the
most difficult and dangerous; the next million miles are comparatively easy.
Yet going up and down that first 150 miles is the least glorious, least
inspiring of all space adventures; it is the stuff beyond low-Earth orbit
that speaks to our yearning as a restless, seeking species. Everyone notes
how Columbia's flight was almost totally ignored until disaster struck, but
it is hard to excite people about a space truck taking off every couple of
months on service missions.

Here, then, is the heart of the problem: The shuttle does nothing but this
most dangerous, yet most mundane, short-haul trip, over and over and over
again -- until the odds catch up with it.

The risk of catastrophe for a commercial jet is 1 in 2 million. For a
fighter jet, it is 1 in 20,000. NASA's best estimate for the shuttle was 1
in 240. Our experience now tells us that it is about 1 in 50.

That is a fantastic risk. It can be justified -- but only for fantastic
journeys. The ultimate problem with the shuttle is not O-rings or loose
tiles but a mission that makes no sense. The launches are magnificent and
inspiring. But the mission is to endlessly traverse the most dangerous part
of space -- the thin envelope of the atmosphere -- to get in and out of
orbit without going anywhere beyond. Yet it is that very beyond -- the moon,
the asteroids, Mars -- that is the whole point of leaving Earth in the first

We slip the bonds of Earth not to spend 20 years in orbit studying
zero-gravity nausea, but to set foot on new worlds, learn their mysteries,
establish our presence.

Why was Columbia up there in the first place? It was conducting scientific
experiments. But almost all such experiments can be conducted by robot.
Sending humans through takeoff so they can study spider behavior in
weightlessness is crazy.

It is almost as crazy to risk lives to act as trucking agent for the space
station, which was the mission of nearly every other shuttle flight for the
past three years. It is hard to justify the space station in the first
place. It is not a platform for further space travel. It produces very
little science. It is basically a laboratory for the biology of
weightlessness. That's about it. Yet the shuttle has become its slave,
hauling up huge pieces of equipment and bringing up astronauts to do the
construction work.

What an end. What a dead end. After millennia of dreaming of flight, the
human race went from a standing start at Kitty Hawk to the moon in 66 years.
And yet in the next 34 years, we've gone nowhere. We've gone backward. We've
retreated from the moon and spent our time spinning around endlessly in
low-Earth orbit.

The way to consecrate the memory of those noble souls on Columbia is not to
mindlessly repeat the past 20 years but to rethink the whole enterprise. For
now, we need to keep the shuttle going because we have no other way to get
into space. And we'll need to support the space station for a few years,
because we have no other program in place.

But that is not our destiny, nor our purpose. If we're going to risk that
first 150 miles of terrible stress on body and machine to get into space,
then let's do it to get to the next million miles -- to cruise the beauty
and vacuum of interplanetary space to new worlds. Back to the moon.
Establish a lunar base. And then on to Mars.

The Columbia tragedy will give voice to the troglodytes who want to give up
manned space travel altogether. But the problem is not manned flight. The
problem is this kind of manned flight, shuttling up and down at great risk
and to little end.

Icarus fell because he flew too close to the sun. Columbia -- and the whole
American manned space program today -- fell because it flies too close to
the Earth, repeatedly, gratuitously braving the terrors of takeoff and
reentry. It is time to once again raise our eyes and our horizons, and
return to our original path, so inexplicably abandoned: to the moon and

© 2003 The Washington Post Company


>From Tech Central Station, 4 February 2003

By James Pinkerton
In the wake of the Columbia tragedy, the arguments of the pro-space
constituency are strong, but not strong enough. If space advocates can't
bring themselves to make the most powerful arguments of all-that space is
vital to human freedom, even to human survival-then their cause will falter
as the soaring spirit of heroism and martyrdom fades, and as the
counter-arguments of the cost-benefiting, bean-counting critics gain

To be sure, the weekend was a time for both paying tribute to lost
astronauts and offering exhortation for future astronautics. Space, said
Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.) on "Meet the Press" on Sunday, is "important to us
as Americans and as adventurers." Declared Sally Ride, the first American
woman in space, to Fox News, "We must push back the frontiers of knowledge."
And, most poignantly, first-American-to-orbit-the-earth John Glenn told CNN,
"I'd go back tomorrow if I could." For the time being, those pro-space
affirmations-oftentimes couched in such solemn language as, "The greatest
tribute to the men and women of Columbia would be to carry on their
work"-will dominate the debate.

But already, the skeptics and faultfinders are being heard. Here, for
example, is a report from Sunday's Manchester Guardian: "Fears of a
catastrophic shuttle accident were raised last summer with the White House
by a former NASA engineer who pleaded for a presidential order to halt all
further shuttle flights until safety issues had been addressed." And here's
a headline atop a cutting article in the new Time magazine: "The Space
Shuttle Must Be Stopped: It's costly, outmoded, impractical and, as we've
learned again, deadly." Soon enough, more details and anecdotes-true or
not-will come dribbling out, depicting reckless errors and fatal mistakes.
Indeed, one can half-expect a report from France to proclaim that the
"accident" was staged by the Pentagon at the direct order of President
George W. Bush.

Then will come war on Iraq, and the whole controversy-naysayer and yeasayer
alike-will be swept out of the headlines for months, if not forever. And
what will emerge at the other end of the investigation, after the bombs stop
dropping down on Baghdad-and after the reportorial bombshells stop bursting
at NASA headquarters? Most likely, a discredited and shriveled piloted space
program. Why? Because the glory of the Columbia crew will have to be shared
with a new cohort of battlefield heroes, and the budget for future space
missions will have been reallocated to other needs, from the Pentagon to
prescription drugs. Yes, space will always have its advocates. But just as
during the Vietnam War, today, during the Terror/Iraq War, the immediate
demand for guns abroad and butter at home will surely crowd out the more
abstract claims of the spacefaring future.

To be sure, space will not be entirely neglected. The U.S. military will
surely continue its exo-atmospheric expansion. And a good thing, too; much
of America's dominance depends on satellite communication and surveillance.
And someday, maybe sooner than we think, America will put heavy weapons into
orbit. But generals and admirals can do their war-work in space without
putting men and women into space.

So what's the real case for space-space for people?

It's two-fold. First, in the long run, we will need space to be free.
Second, we will need space to survive as a species. Freedom and survival:
that's putting the hay down where the horse can get it. And that's what
needs to be said, sooner rather than later-sooner, before it's too late.

Freedom? We need space for freedom? Aren't we fighting a war for freedom
right now? Aren't we sure to win against Saddam Hussein and, one way or
another, Osama Bin Laden? Most likely, we will prevail, big time. But that
doesn't mean that the bad guys won't get off a lucky shot-a lucky
weapon-of-mass-destruction shot. And if they do, then homeland security,
from national ID cards to computer snoopers, will come down upon us and our
civil liberties like an iron fist. And few will protest. To be sure, the
crisis mode might ease up after awhile, but the lesson of big government is
that once it gets big, it stays big.

Moreover, the world itself is getting smaller, and that's not good for the
don't-tread-on-me ethos. President Bush came in as the sworn enemy of
Clinton-era world-government projects, such as the International Criminal
Court and the Kyoto agreement, but now, two years later, there's less
discontinuity and more continuity between the presidencies than many
Republicans might like to admit. Confronted with the need to maintain and
strengthen his anti-terror/anti-"axis of evil" alliances, the President
announced last year that he would rejoin the United Nations Educational,
Scientific and Cultural Organization. And he, or at least his
administration, seems committed to an emerging "Kyoto Lite" system. And of
course, building and rebuilding other countries-and curing them of AIDS-is
not only expensive, but inherently multilateral. In the meantime, even
organizations that most TechCentralStationeers probably endorse, such as the
North American Free Trade Agreement and the World Trade Organization, all
chip away a bit at American sovereignty.

And this is a Republican president we're talking about. What will happen
under a future Democratic president? In the same way that the elder and
younger Bush are known as "41" and "43," what if former president Bill
Clinton is someday remembered as "42," and Hillary Rodham Clinton is known
as "44"? Maybe we'll be spared that particular political fate. But just as
government gets bigger here at home, no matter who's in charge, so
government around the world will get bigger, too. Eventually, inevitably,
superstates at home and abroad will start crowding us. And yet the physical
world we live in stays the same size, offering no escape. A few years ago,
many libertarians thought that the Internet would be a kind of Ayn-Randian
refuge, but the regulators and tax collectors are now corralling that
freezone. Here's a prediction: every year for the rest of our lives, the
world will be knitted together a bit more closely, by this or that
international agreement. Worrisome? Sure. Preventable? Probably not. It
seems self-evident that if the earth is of a fixed size and the government
is equally fixed in its Parkinson's Law-like growth pattern, then freedom
will be crowded out.

So what's the answer? One word: space. In the past, Europeans could find
freedom by coming to America, and Americans could find freedom by heading
out west. But that frontier is long closed. And from now until the end of
time, the feds will be closing in, looking for more things to regulate and
red-tape. Freedom-lovers will resist, but if the past is any guide, the
freedom-dislikers-most politicians and all bureaucrats, environmentalists,
and egalitarians-will win more fights than they lose. That doesn't mean that
America is destined to become another Maoist China; most likely, America in
a globalized world will drift toward the global mean-which is to say, a
condition of considerably less freedom than we have now.

But if Americans could travel, physically and permanently, to space-even if
just to the moon, as in Robert Heinlein's libertarian classic, The Moon is a
Harsh Mistress-then prospects for the survival of maximum human freedom
would be greatly enhanced. Those who don't mind being niggled and nitpicked
by the state could stay right here, but the mere existence of an exit-option
for freedom-ophiles would serve as a check on the checkers.

Historically, the only way that the slow bureaucratic creep of government is
reversed is through revolution or war. And that could happen. But there's a
problem: the next American revolution won't be fought with muskets. It could
well be waged with proliferated wonder-weapons. That is, about the time that
American yeopersons decide to resist the encroachment of the United Nations,
or the European Union-or the United States government-the level of
destructive power in a future conflict could remove the choice expressed by
Patrick Henry in his ringing cry, "Give me liberty, or give me death." The
next big war could kill everybody, free and unfree alike.

Which leads to the second argument. Spaceship earth may not be as fragile as
a space shuttle, but it's still fragile. By all means, let's have homeland
defense and missile defense. But let's also get real. If the weapons get
bigger, and the planet stays the same size, then prospects for human
survival shrink accordingly. For the time being, North Korea seems to have
gotten away with breaking out of the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. Kim
Jong Il's arsenal could be eliminated in the future, of course, but in the
meantime, the atomic cat is out of the nuclear bag.

Writing in the February 3 Weekly Standard, Henry Sokolski, director of the
Nonproliferation Policy Education Center in Washington D.C., offers up
scenarios for the spread of nuclear weapons that are much more compelling
than the scenarios for their unspreading. Countries such as Iran, Syria,
Egypt, Turkey, Algeria, Taiwan, South Korea, and Japan, he writes, have all
flirted with the idea of building atomic weapons. And one could add to
Sokolski's list other countries, such as Brazil, where the new president,
Lula da Silva, seems to be forming an axis of anti-Americanism with the
likes of Venezuela and Cuba.

Meanwhile, every one of those potential proliferators could be brought into
line, and we'd still face the problem of "super-empowered individuals." Yup,
the prospect of Moore's Law-computer power doubles every 18 months-affects
cyber-geek and terror-creep alike. Such computational capacity is inherently
"dual use" -the ultimate double-edged sword, hanging over all of us, to be
wielded by some of us. As technofuturist Ray Kurzweil predicts, "We'll see
1,000 times more technological progress in the 21st century than we saw in
the 20th." Most of that progress will be to the good, but not all. What
could a hacker-terrorist alliance come up with, weapon-wise? There's only
one way to find out.

Sooner or later, Moore's Law will meet Murphy's Law, and we'll realize just
how vulnerable we all are, six billion souls, crowded into a narrow band of
soil, stone, air and water, hugging the flimsy, filmy, easy-to-rub-off
surface of the earth. Let's hope that before we have that rendezvous with
deathly destiny, we've had the foresight to build an escape ladder for

Some pro-space pragmatists will say that the American public, preoccupied
with shuttle heroes, Saddam Hussein, and the stock market, is not going to
be interested in long-term arguments about the future of freedom-even the
future of human survival. Better, those alleged pragmatists will assert, to
simply make once again the traditional arguments about the positive
scientific and psychic spinoffs of space travel.

Those arguments are fine, as far as they go. But they don't go far, at least
not far enough. That is, the "Tang and Teflon" argument, which lost much of
its force three decades ago, is not going to recreate a strong pro-space
constituency simply because it is repeated with renewed fervor. The ghosts
of seven dead space-heroes may summon spaceniks back into space, but more
risk-averse Americans will question the cost.

The people of this country-and of the world-need to be told the truth. And
here's the truth: if we don't create an off-earth option in the relatively
near future, we risk not only our liberty, but also our lives. The sooner
the United States declares its independence from these 50 geographic states,
proclaiming instead that our sacred honor should flourish everywhere, on and
off the earth, the better for all earthlings. America may be the last best
hope for mankind, but the emphasis should always be on the "best," not the

Copyright 2003, Tech Central Station


>From Birmingham Post, 31 January 2003

A day devoted to truth about asteroids is the latest attraction at a
Birmingham museum.

The Planetary Society has chosen Soho House in Handsworth to stage the
event, thanks to its reputation as the 'home' of science.

The society, which has spent years researching asteroids, will present a
series of lectures on what exactly they are, how they are observed and what
sort of threat they pose to life on Earth.

Andy Lound, the Planetary Society's UK coordinator, said many recent
'doomsday' stories were put out by organisations hoping to secure research
funding from the Government.

'Last year there were several reports of doomsday asteroids heading to Earth
all of which missed by some distance,' he said. 'I, along with many
colleagues within The Planetary Society, are concerned that as soon as a new
object is discovered that crossed the Earth's orbit a variety of
organisations immediately issues warning notices without carrying out the
correct scientific check procedures to see if indeed there is a chance that
the Earth will be hit.

'Britain is developing a worldwide reputation for 'crying wolf' either in an
attempt to stimulate the Government to allocate financial resources into
Near Earth Object research or to gain publicity for their establishments.

'In either case the result is the same - misleading the public, creating
fear and when it turns out the objects are going to miss, the public become
mistrusting of these 'scientific' announcements.

'These lectures will give the general public an opportunity to learn the
true state of play regarding a possible asteroid impact and to understand
why it is difficult to predict precisely when an impact will take place.'

Mr Lound will start the day with a lecture entitled A Missing Planet,
focusing on the discovery and origin of asteroids. The day ends with a
fantasy scenario called Destination Earth, where the Prime Minister has been
informed that an asteroid will soon hit Earth. Members of the Planetary
Society and the audience will then discuss the plan of action. The free
event takes place from 2-4pm on Sunday.

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