CCNet-ESSAY, 6 September 1999
ASTEROIDS, COMETS, METEORS & LOST LUGGAGE: ED GRONDINE'S ACM DIARY
From E.P. Grondine <firstname.lastname@example.org>
Hello Benny! -
Sorry to be so late in getting this account of the 1999
International Conference on Asteroids, Comets, and Meteors to you, but
my trusty Sony Pressman M-747V micro-cassete recorder took the
opportunity of the conference to begin sputtering. I suppose I should
not hold the failure against it, as it has performed reliably for some
13 years now, and given truly great performance, recording many
important conversations in full, often from my own jacket pocket, and
this despite my clumsily allowing it to drop to the floor, demonstrably
one too many time too often.
At the end of July I took a break from the sad task of dealing with
my late mother's estate to pay a visit to the 1999 International
Conference on Asteroids, Comets, and Meteors held in lovely Ithaca,
New York. As you know, the major sponsor of the raise in NASA NEO
detection moneys from $3.5 million per year to $10 million per year,
Representative George Brown, passed away shortly before the conference,
with the moneys still not through the legislative process. These moneys
need to be secured, and my plan for the week was simply to use my
contacts with fellow reporters to help ensure that the voters out there
are as aware as possible as to the danger. Aside from this goal, for
CCNet subscribers I hoped to get some sense of the consensus among the
experts here on both Binzel's hazard index and Morrison's confirmation
This coverage will be in my usual chatty style, and if anyone out
there doesn't like it, they can simply hit the DELETE key now. For
everyone else, who has been reading abstracts to the point of sleep and
are seeking a diversion, here goes -
SUNDAY: THE RECEPTION
I arrived in Ithaca after an all night drive from Virginia, where
for the last several weeks we had been enjoying 100 degree Fahrenheit
temperatures and air polluted so badly that the experts were advising
people to stop breathing. Undoubtedly climate played a large role in
my decision to go to Ithaca, as the weather there in the daytime was in
the 80's with very low humidity, in the nights in the 50's, and air
quality was so good that I was once again really able to enjoy my
Ithaca is situated at the south end of Lake Cayuga, which is one of
the New York finger Lakes, and some are now suspecting these were formed
by the collision of an impactor with the Earth. As one might suspect,
the landscape there is very hilly, and Cornell University is situated
atop one of these hills above the lake-shore town of Ithaca. As a result
of this terrain the streets are convoluted; throw in the desire of the
neighborhoods to channel university traffic away from their own streets,
then add in the closure of the remaining streets for the construction of
a new campus cooling system, and getting around by car was
extraordinarily difficult. I am of the opinion that the Cornell
admission process involves setting prospective students loose without
a map, and then allowing in those who find the campus.
The conference was held in the Statler Hotel, a hotel which is
owned by Cornell University itself and built right on its campus. I
don't think there is any other college which can boast of a similar
facility, and how this came to be is quite interesting. It seems the
hotel baron Mr. Statler had been hiring people trained by Cornell
University's hotel school, was extremely pleased with them, decided that
Cornell needed its own hotel if it was going to be able to really train
people right, and then simply gave Cornell the money to build a first
But the hotel was a little over my budget, and after settling into
a nearby motel and catching a few hours of sleep, I proceeded to the
preliminary reception. I dressed for this in jeans and my seersucker
sportscoat, which I thought would be sufficiently casual; I was
surprised when most of the guests showed up in standard dress of shorts,
sandals, and t-shirts. While standing outside waiting for my
credentials, I noticed another gentleman dressed in seersucker and we
struck up a conversation. It turned out that the well dressed gentleman
was Nobel prize winner Bob Richardson, Vice Provost for Research at
Cornell, and one of the sponsors of the conference.
Dr. Richardson's current focus is in extremely low temperature
physics; coincidentally he had met the week before with our mutual
acquaintance Harrison Schmitt at one of the Apollo memorial sessions.
Dr. Richardson told me that at that session Schmitt had once again
proposed going back to the Moon to mine Helium 3 for fusion reactors,
and dismissed Schmitt's scheme as prohibitively expensive. He went on
to describe the current use of Helium 3 in nuclear magnetic resonance
imaging of the lungs, and we chatted briefly about the Helium 3
currently being supplied from the former Soviet Union. After this I
described briefly my own scheme for using the Moon as a place to construct
radars to provide warning of the arrival of smaller impactors,
and pointed out that if such a project were to be undertaken, it might be
possible as a side benefit to obtain further supplies of Helium 3 at a
Entering the reception, I met in person my old e-mail friend Hal
Povemire from the meteorite list. When Hal mentioned that there are no
authenticated deaths from meteorites, I brought up the Cambridge
Conference and Bob Kobres' archives, about whose existence Hal had had
no knowledge. We agreed that a better way of describing the situation
would be that "while many deaths are suspected, none have been confirmed
yet", since the "authenticated" part of Hal's original quote is usually
either left out by editors or ignored by readers. Hal mentioned that
Kathy Sawyer of the Washington Post sometimes goes to him for quotes,
so at least now she won't be getting a "no confirmed deaths from
meteorites" quote from Hal anytime in the future.
As I was exchanging introductions with others, I was sometimes
surprised to learn how few of the ACM participants knew about the
Cambridge Conference. The work being done now in the recovery of impact
events from the historical record is completely unknown to a
surprisingly large number of astronomers, and Earth impacts remain for them
something that is only theoretically possible. Little wonder there
was a tremendous focus at the conference on theoretical studies, rather
than on studies on impact data from either the Earth, Mars, the Moon, or
I had an enjoyable reunion-union with Clark Chapman. Clark still
denies that the congressmen were trying to get him to speak about the
Minor Planet Center at that hearing, even though the MPC had played a
large role in the 1997 XF11 affair only a few weeks earlier. I reminded
Clark that he was not alone that day, and that the others there had also
pulled blanks. Clark and I spoke about Binzel's threat scheme, and I
will include his comments along with those of Binzel later.
After speaking with Clark, I was distracted by an obviously giddy
and thoroughly charming Ms. R***, and seeing her condition offered my
aid in making the trip to the bar for her to get some more wine.
Interesting, Benny, that as I have gotten older my favorite science
fiction movie has changed from Sir Arthur's 2001 to Fellini's 8 & 1/2.
Deprived of Ms. R***'s company by old friend of hers from
University of Maryland, who gallantly offered to help her get back to her
hotel room, I spent some time talking with some Gunter Kargl and Axel
Hagerman, ESA scientists from Munich working on the Rosetta Project. I
remarked to them as to how Rosetta struck me as being similar in many
ways to earlier NASA big science projects, with Rosetta's launch
scheduled in 2003 and its arrival in 2011. My young friends corrected
some of my misapprehensions, as unlike researchers with the old NASA big
science projects, my acquaintances will not remain employed for the entire
mission, but instead will be "released" as soon as their work is done.
Furthermore, for the Rosetta Project the ESA has adopted the new NASA
scheme of in-house quality control testing, with its associated cost
Later that evening I made the acquaintance of another young ESA
researcher, whom Delta Airlines had left stranded in New York City
without his luggage. Delta had assured him that his luggage would be
found and forwarded to him, and had given him a whole of $50 to tide him
over, but he had had to spend his first day in the US trying to find a
change of clothes. Despite their promise, Delta Airlines had still not
forwarded his luggage, but they had managed to determine, however, that
his luggage was in no less than three different US cities.
On the way back to my motel I got lost in the hills above Ithaca,
and after an unscheduled tour of some of the area's better architecture
I finally managed to find my way to my bed. When I arrived at the motel
I was still pretty keyed up, but found that a few pages of "We started
our computer model with 1000 objects ..." made a fair sedative.
DAY 1: MONDAY, 26 JULY
SEE YOU AT THE MOVIES?
Having become lost the previous evening on my way back to my motel
from the reception, I now became lost once again on my return to the
campus for the first day's events. This precipitated an immediate
decision on my part to relocate to on-campus housing, and as I did not
know how much housing was still available, I took care to make this
arrangement immediately after I arrived.
As a result of these detours, I missed the very first morning
sessions. Walking from my new on campus lodgings to the Statler Hotel,
I crossed a footbridge spanning a ravine several hundred feet deep.
For those who are examining the New York Finger Lakes as the product of
an impact event, these ravines will provide a key method for dating it,
as it will be quite simple to estimate how long it took the streams to
erode their way through the newly raised rock.
The first event I attended was the press conference at which Steve
Ostro and David Meisel made major announcements. When I arrived at the
briefing room I met with Paul Chodas and Andrea Milani. This was a real
pleasure, and they offered me a seat between them.
Ostro spoke first, describing his thoughts on the importance of
asteroid 1998 KY26. 1998 KY26 is a baseball-diamond sized (30 meter
diameter spheroid) carbonaceous chondrite asteroid that travels between
the Earth and Mars every 1.3 years. Ostro is captivated by the idea of
using this asteroid to ferry people between the Earth and Mars, and
estimates that the water extracted from 1998 KY26's million cubic foot
volume could support 1,000 people for 1,000 days, or be used to generate
liquid hydrogen and oxygen for use as rocket fuels. Further, Steve
estimates delta v's required to get to 1998 KY26, around 3.5 meters per
second for rendezvous and 5 meters per second for fly-by, among the
lowest delta v's required to get to any object: lower than for any other
While Steve's idea to use 1998 KY26 to ferry people between the
Earth and Mars is quite intriguing, the major announcement he made was
during his opening remarks. Steve stated that there are two ways of
looking at things, the pessimistic way and the optimistic way.
(Personally, I always prefer looking at things the realistic way, but
that's just my own preference.) Steve continued that there had been two
movies last year describing Earth impact events, "Deep Impact" and
"Armageddon", and that these movies had promoted a pessimistic view of
asteroids. But, he went on, next year James Cameron, director of the
movie "Titanic", would have the first two parts of Kim Stanley
Robinson's's Mars trilogy, "Red Mars" and "Blue Mars" ready to release.
Now while 1998 KY26 is extremely significant, this was major news,
and I should take a few moments to explain why. While most people think
of James Cameron as the director of the movie "Titanic", before that he
directed the movies "Alien" and "Terminator", and he is Hollywood's
hottest science fiction director. His earlier project "The Abyss" had
led to no less than two copycat movies, "Leviathon" and "Deep Star Six".
Of more immediate relevance to Conference participants, after "Titanic"
Cameron's next project was supposed to have been "Dark Angel Falling",
about, surprise, an ASTEROID IMPACT EVENT. But as "Titanic" went over
budget and into extended production, "Dark Angel Falling" never went
ahead. However, (no surprise here), two copycat movies, "Deep Impact"
and "Armageddon", appeared upon the screen.
I suppose that taken as a whole these events make a sad commentary
on the intellectual bankruptcy of many in Hollywood, but also one
immediate effect has been that the release dates for "Red Mars" and
"Blue Mars" have been tightly held secrets, as Cameron and his backers
have not wanted to see the market flooded with cheap knock-offs or with
un-licensed Mars tie-ins. In May of this year it was reported that the
"Mars" series were intended for release on FOX Television in the United
States (owned by Rupert Murdoch), and that it was hoped that these would
lead to a regular television series on that network.
As JPL has undoubtedly been providing Cameron with technical
assistance, Ostro's information was undoubtedly correct. Unfortunately
for Cameron, news of the Mars Trilogy made it out months ago anyway, and
two other movies, one "Mars", from Warner Brothers, the other "Mission
to Mars", from Disney, will also be released next year. In both movies
most of the Mars bound crews die.
(Two weeks after the ACM Conference, Cameron told the Mars Society
that his 5 part television mini-series and a 3-D IMAX film would be
released in 2001. The delayed release date and unique formats are
surely one way of avoiding copycats. Four weeks after the ACM
conference Cameron said that his works will be based more on the
scheme's of Bob Zubrin for manned Mars flight, as they will take place
during the period of initial exploration. Warner Brothers had also
changed the title of its copycat from "Mars" to "Red Planet".)
What these movies mean altogether is that here in the United States
it is going to be almost impossible for candidates for President not to
take a position on manned Mars flight, and that the NASA budget will be
a key political issue for at least the next two years.
(On a more personal note, it seems to me that there is another way
to view Mars, and that is realistically, the same way you view asteroids
and comets. If any producer is interested in making "Real Mars", I know
some Russians who would be pretty interested in putting a long range
four-wheeled rover on Mars with a Molniya-class launcher for about $35
million or so. Give me a call: all I want for making the introductions
is a measly 2%. On the other hand, if you want to use a US platform and
launch vehicle, the creator of the world's only practical artificially
intelligent robotic vision system, a necessity for any long range Mars
rover, is a close personal friend. I look forward to hearing from you:
Let's do launch.)
In his opening remarks Steve had estimated the population of
asteroids with 1 kilometer or larger diameters was between 1,000-2,000,
the population of soccer field size asteroids as several hundred
thousand, and the total population of Earth crossing asteroids the size
of baseball diamonds, 100 feet or so, at around 10 million. When he
stated later that only the small percentage of those which were made of
iron presented a threat, Milani let out a gasp, began muttering "No",
and shot me a look of amazement. I was not so surprised, as Steve had
told me the previous evening at the reception that the worst case impact
was an impact in the Pacific which would cause a tsunami killing about
1.5% of the Earth's population.
At the session I questioned Steve about his estimate of the impact
threat and he stated that of the 10 million baseball sized asteroids,
only a few percent of these were irons, and that these would be the only
ones to get through, and that this was the reason the problem was
unimportant. By this point Milani was gasping "No!, No!, No!", and when
Steve estimated the size of the Meteor Crater impactor at an impossibly
large number, Milani nudged me and exclaimed, "NO, NO, around 50-60
Giving some measure of Steve's confidence in his vision of 1998
KY26, he estimates that a water extraction technology demonstration
mission could be finished in 6 years, or by 2006, if the decision was
made now to undertake it, and that a human round trip mission to 1998
KY26 could be completed by 2015. He not only thinks that a manned
mission to 1998 KY26 would be easier than a manned Moon mission, he
thinks that it would be far easier and cheaper than a manned Mars
As 1998 KY26 rotates once every 10.7 minutes, in the questioning
I asked him whether the Coriolis effect might cause problems for any
astronauts onboard it. Steve replied that since NASA had repeatedly
spun astronauts at 30 RPM with no ill effects, 11 RPM should cause no
problem. He seemed unaware that NASA had spun these astronauts at
30 RPM to duplicate the 8 G's of lift-off, and that the astronauts
had had to endure this load for only a very few minutes.
Continuing along these lines, Steve opined that the main purpose of
the International Space Station was to test human adaptability to zero
gravity for manned flight to Mars. In this he seemed quite oblivious to
the uses of ISS as a laboratory for the study of materials, materials
processing, hydro-dynamics, and complex biochemical compounds. Further,
in a comparison of the mass of 1998 KY26 with the ISS, (1998 KY26 has 10
times the mass of the ISS), Steve described the ISS as something "into
which 10's of billions of dollars are being spent to go around the Earth
endlessly in a circle."
It would appear that Steve is oblivious to the ISS' main scientific
role. In a later cost comparison of missions to 1998 KY26 Steve spoke
at the press conference in disparaging tones about both the Space
Shuttle and the International Space Station.
Pursuing this line of questioning with Steve after the session, he
expressed the opinion that if the rotation was a problem the 1998 KY26
could simply be de-spun by rockets using the asteroid's own materials as
a source for fuels. It was clear that he never considered that it might
be more desirable to spin up 1998 KY26 in order to give crew
compartments attached to it say about 2/3 Earth's gravity, which would
ease the change from Earth gravity to Mars' gravity and vice-versa.
Given that Mars is going to be in the public spotlight early next
year, and that Steve will be speaking about 1998 KY26 in this regard, I
felt it was important that he have both a better knowledge of the impact
hazard and the realities of manned space flight, and right then made up
my mind that I would have to speak with him later about these.
I accomplished these goals Wednesday night at the banquet, by suggesting
to him that he read Mike Baillie's book on historical impacts and Mark
Wade's Encyclopedia Astronautica internet site.
The other major announcement of the day was Dave Meisel's
announcement of the first observational confirmation of the arrival of
heavier elements into our solar system from a supernova. The hypothesis
that our solar system's supply of these elements had been formed in
supernova and then drifted into the proto-system cloud has long been put
forth: here was the first observational evidence that this was indeed
what occurred. Dave, who usually works at CSSL Pennsylvania State, will
be at State University of New York Geneseo for a while, and can be
reached by those interested at email@example.com.
After the press conference I met up with Deborah Zabarenko, who
was up working the conference for Reuters, a feed used by many media
outlets, and I told her I was covering the conference for a the
Cambridge Conference Netwwork, a electronic newsletter by which a number
of the experts in the field communicated. She asked me why I was there, and
I told her for about $6.5 million dollars, explaining that the
asteroid detection budget had just been increased by that amount, from
$3.5 to $10 million dollars, but that since the sponsor of the increase,
Representative Brown had died, its passage was in doubt. Deborah agreed
with me, pointing out that she covered a lot of big science in
Washington, and that in that context $10 million was "chump change", and
if that's what it took to deal with it, they should do it. This brought
to my mind a similar statement that Ted Koppel made at a conference
earlier this year after hearing me discuss the impact problem with Ed
Stone of JPL. These reporters are no dummies.
Deborah went on and noted how blase the scientists were about the
threat, and I explained that a lot of them have been living with it as
well as the lack of government funding for a long, long time. She
wondered if Steve had been correct in describing the hazard, and I
explained to her that no he had not, that he was unaware of the work by
others that was being done in the area. A lot of people had already
been killed by impactors, I told her, and I offered to put her in
contact with Mike Baillie: he would no doubt give her an interview, as
he was pushing his new book "From Exodus to Arthur", which set out the
number of people killed. Deborah declined my offer, telling me she was
on tight deadline, and instead asked me for a list of suspected impact
events causing deaths, which I provided for her off the top of my head.
I returned to the hotel from the press conference center and had
lunch, and as I was headed out the door I ran into my old friend Vicky
Garshnek, who had just arrived after a 36 hour sleepless flight from
Hawaii to give a paper dealing with handling the casualties from an
impact event. Vicky's specialty is telemedicine, in particular
telemedicine use by astronauts in space, and after she had read the
original Shoemaker Report she had begun wondering if there was any plan
on how to handle the casualties which might occur in the next impact
event. Her first inquiry into the matter had led to her being told that
the plan was to handle the casualties in the same manner as those from a
large bomb, but Vicky had immediately realized that the number of
casualties from a major impact event would exceed those from one large
bomb in a single area, and so she began to work on the problem. She had
discussed the matter with Dr. Morisson, and he had provided valuable
insights. She would be giving her paper the next day, and had come to
the conclusion that given the likely size of the event international
cooperation would be necessary both in handling the casualties as well
as refugees from the impact area.
After the afternoon session I walked down the hill and across
another deep ravine to the Colllegetown area to find a place to eat.
The first establishment one comes across when entering Collegetown is a
combination bagel bakery and bar, and this is certainly the first one of
these that I have ever seen. I passed up on eating there and instead
went to the Irish American bar next door, where I had a fine steak
Crossing the ravine again and walking back up the hill, I returned
to the campus. Here I ran into the young researcher from the ESA whose
baggage Delta Airlines had lost. Despite their promises, Delta had
still not delivered his luggage, and as he had completely run out of
clothes he had had to spend the day shopping and had missed a large part
of the day's sessions.
Crossing the other ravine, I returned to my lodgings. Despite my
fatigue I found it impossible to get to rest, as for some odd reason
every time I fell asleep I was awoken by dreams about falling from a
DAY 2: TUESDAY, 27 JULY
"OUR JOB IS NOT TO SCARE PEOPLE...."
The day started off well. The New York Times had run an editorial
statement noting the need for funding of the NEO detection program. As
the day started my big problem was that the press conference on the
recent impact scares was going to be held at the same time as Vicky was
giving her paper. With Andrea Milani, Paul Chodas, Richard Binzel, Alan
Harris, and David Rabinowitz on the panel I had no choice but to miss
As I expected, their press conference featured a discussion of how
exactly orbits are determined, why none of the recently discussed
objects present much a of threat, and a presentation of the Binz...
errhhh, Torino Scale. (Considering Richter's experience, Binzel does not
want his name associated with a tragedy as large as an impact event.)
One of the most amusing comments at the press conference was by Paul
Chodas, who said that while he would have liked to have run further
Monte Carlo checks on one asteroid's chances, his daughter had wanted to
use her computer to play a video game.
Lest the headlines read "Asteroids Present No Danger, Say Noted
Astronomers", during the question period I asked about the panelists to
clarify exactly what they had been talking about when they used the term
"background level". Binzel pointed out that their estimates of the
background rates were given in the Torino Scale handout.
The problem here, though I did not bring it up at the time, is that
the background rates they gave out are wrong. Let's look:
"A collision capable of causing localized destruction. Such events
occur somewhere between once per 50 years and once per 1000 years."
ca. 1584 BCE Destruction of Hittite forces under T'e Hantilish (Joshua
ca. 520 BCE Destruction of Etruscan town of Volsinii
679 AD - Destruction of Colingiham Monastery
ca. 800 AD - Impact in Baltic and death by local tsunami
ca. 1321-1368 AD Erh River fall in China
1450 AD - miss ("missed" people - no one killed) Wabar
1490 AD - Ch'ing-yang fall kills over 10,000 (possibly hail)
1868 AD - miss near Pultusk, Poland
1908 AD - miss in Tunguska
1930 AD - miss in Brazilian jungle
1947 AD - miss at Sikhote Ailin in Kamchatka
1972 AD - miss in South West Pacific
"A collision capable of causing regional devastation. Such events occur
between once per 1,000 years and once per 100,000 years."
ca. 3100 BCE - Battle of Titans(?), tsunami leading to flood myths
580 AD - Destruction of Bordeaux region and city of Orleans
585 AD - Destruction of "two islands in the sea"
Date unknown - Destruction of Ainu
ca. 1500 AD - Australian Great Wall of Water, with collapse of
Polynesian megalithic cultures on Ponhpei and elsewhere
"A collision capable of causing global climatic catastrophe. Such
events occur once per 100,000 years, or less often."
ca. 3100 BCE?
ca. 2345 BCE
ca. 1160 BCE
ca. 536 AD
While some of these events are still in the process of
confirmation, and may turn out to be attributable to causes other than
impact, this short list includes no data from North America, South
America, or Africa. Also, it is difficult to categorize events as
either "local", "regional", or "global", as not only is very little
currently known about the extent of the historical impact events, the
terms "local" and "regional" are poorly defined.
In sum, however you calculate it, the background rates given with the
Torino Scale could very well turn out to be plain wrong, in some cases
by several orders of magnitude: they need to be corrected.
After the full press conference, the participants took additional
questions from the reporters individually. Interestingly, Andrea Milani
told us that his funding came from the United States' National Science
Foundation and was going to run out in 3 weeks. I asked several
questions, trying to get Andrea to say something that might shame the
government of Italy into providing more money, but the most he would say
was that the effort needed to be international in scope.
During the press conference Andrea kept on saying "Our job is not to
scare people, but to solve the problem." In saying this I think that he
meant the problem of estimating an orbit for any particular asteroid.
But if he meant the problem of finding the next Earth impactor and doing
something about it before it hits, then people are going to have to be
scared", or at least concerned, or they are simply not going to pay the
money needed to do it.
After the press conference I had lunch in the Statler Hotel's
basement cafeteria and then went over to post my e-mail. After
receiving your message that you would be out until mid-August, thus
relieving me of the duty of doing a daily dispatch, a simply stunning
piece of news started to break.
The House Space Subcommittee had done its first mark-up, which
trimmed the NASA budget by $1.3 billion dollars, with a most of the cuts
coming from "space science", including of course all of the NEO
programs. To give you some idea as to the extent of cut the House Sub
Committee was proposing, not only had the NEO programs been hit, they
were even proposing the cancellation of the future Mars probes, this
only a short time after the public's celebration of Pathfinder's
I returned to the afternoon parallel session on bolides to find
myself in a rather strange situation. Given that all the conference
participants were busy with their own work at the conference, at this
point they were completely oblivious that the House Subcommittee had
just proposed cutting off nearly all of the money for their projects.
The session started with a paper from Dee Pack from the Aerospace
Corporation on the detection of recent bolide events by infra-red
sensors. From 19/7/98 to 30/3/99 there had been some 17 events in just
the Pacific, including a 12 kiloton 4.5 second burston 14/1/99. There
was a lot of work being done on trying to break out the bolides by
source, and most of those observed during this time were consistent with
6 to 8 meter objects on Apollo type orbits.
(Ed Tagliaferri from the Aerospace Corporation was also there too,
and I enjoyed catching up with him before the session started.)
One of the reasons I especially went to the bolide session was to
listen to Dr. Doug ReVelle present his research based on declassified
data from the armed forces nuclear blast sensors. Before the session I
had a chance to speak with Doug, and he related to me a story which had
been told to him by Gene Shoemaker himself. Shoemaker had told Doug
that in the mid 1960's he had been attending a conference, when some
people from AFTAC (the Air Force Technical Assistance Command)
introduced themselves to him and asked him for his help with a problem
they were having. The party retreated to a room back behind the
curtains, and the AFTAC people set out the problems they were having
with large bolides setting off their nuclear blast sensors and asked for
I had often wondered if Gene Shoemaker had first become aware of the
extremely high frequency of small impactors when the first data came
down from the infra-red blast detection satellites, but now Doug told me
it was later than this, around the mid 1960's, if what Gene Shoemaker
told him was indeed fully accurate, and not just what he felt he could
tell him. On Friday morning I had a further conversation with Doug, and
he revealed even more startling news then, but I'll save that for my
account of Friday morning. (There's nothing like suspense to keep the
The best of Dr. ReVelle's current estimates for bolides of differing
classes is as follows:
1 Kiloton - 5.61 per year
15 Kiloton - .844 per year
1 Megaton - 1 per 111.9 years
One of the big problems Dr. ReVelle is working on is sorting out the
acoustic signatures between the different classes of asteroids and
Doug's paper was followed by one from a Russian team headed by O.P.
Popova of the Institute for the Dynamics of Geospheres. The Russians
are working on the bolide problem by using spectral analysis to identify
the sources for larger blasts, but are currently stumped by the lack of
spectral differences between comets and chondrites. Also, the Russians
are working on the problem of modeling the larger bolide blasts
themselves, but so far have just concluded that their hydro-dynamic
models are incapable of modeling the observed blasts, and that something
different is needed to do the job.
After the afternoon session it was back on to the internet to try
and learn what was going on with the proposed space science budget cut,
and then a quick dinner in the hotel bar before the evening's poster
session. Outside of the poster sessions Michael Casper, noted meteorite
dealer and Cornell University's Adjunct Curator of Meteorites, had
tables with items for sale on them, including a HUGE chunk of the newly
found Shergottite from Mars. Michael kindly let me closely examine and
hold the chunk, and though it is similar to granite, gray with black
inclusions, I was amazed by the fact that on Mars, with its low gravity,
the grey matrix had simply "foamed", for lack of a better word.
At the poster session itself, I spent most of my time griping to
Paul Chodas about the state of impact estimates. While theoretical
computer models were in abundance at the conference, I expressed my
opinion to Paul that this was little more than masturbating with a
machine, as there was very little work being presented at the conference
dealing with real data for large impactors: there was no work being done
on counting craters on other bodies in the solar system; there was
nothing presented dealing with work being done with the historical
record of Earth impacts. The estimates that were being presented, and
which were widely taken as fact instead of estimates, do not
seem to correspond to the data that has been observed elsewhere.
Even though he certainly is not responsible for this state of
affairs, Paul generously gave me an ear in which to vent my
frustrations. As he put it, a start has been made, but a lot of work
remains to be done.
After the poster session I ran into my friend from the ESA whose
luggage Delta Airlines had misplaced. He was fuming, as he had spent
the day on the telephone listening to the "pretty" music and being lied
to by Delta. Delta was now claiming that his luggage was in the care of
no less than three overnight delivery services, and would undoubtedly
show up the next day.
Returning to my lodgings from the poster session, I moved the head
of my bed away from the window, and this had the effect which I desired:
the dreams of falling stopped, and I was able to get a good night's
sleep for the first time in three days.
DAY 3: WEDNESDAY, 28 JULY
SHOCKED AND STUNNED
The participants of the morning press conference had designed it as
a way of promoting a reconsideration of the cancellation of the
Champollion project, as a presentation of Champollion had been included
along with spokemen for the projects which had earlier been approved.
(Gerhardt Schwem of the ESA Rosetta project was not on the panel, but
instead was standing at the back of the room.) That their own projects
were now in very real danger of cancellation was news that they simply
found almost impossible to deal with, and while some tried to conduct
the press conference as they planned from the start, the grim reality of
the proposed cuts kept intruding.
Don Yeomans spoke about Muses-C, and being the master showman that
he is, he had a full scale model of the micro-rover/leaper setting on
the desk in front of him. (As Muses-C is a Japanese project with some
US participation, the proposed budget cuts would have little effect on
Benton Clark spoke about Stardust, but as most have been fully
briefed on it, I won't repeat that briefing again here.
Paul Weisman from JPL spoke about the encounter with Asteroid
Braille that Deep Space 1 was supposed to be undertaking that very
evening, completely unaware (as was everyone there) that Deep Space 1
had gone into safe mode that very morning. He was obviously pained by
the cancellation of Champollion, which he attributed simply the need for
reductions in total spending necessitated by overuns in other sections
of the NASA budget. While overruns on the ISS certainly played a large
role, they may not have been decisive, as Deep Impact was approved after
the Champollion cut. Other factors such as total cost (around $280
million), technical complexity, and limited return may also have played
a large role in the decision to terminate Champollion.
Bob Farquhar from John Hopkins spoke about the bi-propellant system
failure on NEAR, and pointed out that NEAR's new encounter with asteroid
Eros would take place somewhat fittingly on Valentine's Day, 2000.
Touching indirectly upon the subject of the proposed cuts, Bob pointed
out that the average cost for the proposed missions would be around $210
Cornell's own Joe Veverke spoke next about Contour, and as Harvard's
Fred Whipple had arrived by now, Dr. Veverke was pleased to announce
that Dr. Whipple was joining the Contour team. Under normal
circumstances this would have been the media announcement of the day,
but the circumstances were far from normal, and there was simply not
going to be any way around them.
Mike Ahearn of University of Maryland spoke about Deep Impact. The
name "Deep Impact" was actually developed for the probe long before the
movie, and the similarity may be attributable to chance, though the
producers of the movie were in constant contact with NASA for technical
advice. Deep Impact has huge mass margins, is technically simple, and
promises a large science return. There will be great international
involvement, as the use of many observatories will be required to assure
that the impact with the asteroid is recorded. Furthermore, the impact
should be so large that amateur astronomers in the Southern Hemisphere
should be able to see it.
When it went to question and answer time, discussion first centered
on the selection of projects on the criterion of how fast they could
return results. As the House Sub-committee had just proposed cutting
out all the missions entirely, it seemed to me that the presenters were
avoiding the issue immediately at hand. I knew that these people needed
to speak frankly about the budget cuts that were (and still are) being
proposed: they had not faced up to them all morning, being in a shocked
state of denial.
Thus I got ready to play a game I call soft ball. This is where I
pitch an easy question real slowly to a presenter with the intention
that he knock it out of the park. (Of course, on occasion I'll sneak in
a burning fast ball near to the plate, but not this morning.) I asked
the panel whether the budget cuts might lead to greater international
cooperation with the Europeans and the Japanese to accomplish the
science goals. Dr. Veverke snapped off, "I think that the two things
are completely unrelated." It was clear that he was angry, and it was
though I had proposed the budget cuts myself on the excuse that the
research results could be had cheaper from foreign sources. I fumbled
and then asked Don for a comment, and Don answered that as you could see
from looking at the conference attendance, there was a great deal of
cooperation going on already. Don pointed out that the budget
negotiations were in the first round, and to defuse the tension he joked
that it was likely to be a case where first they propose to cut off your
hand, and then when they propose to cut off only a couple of fingers,
you're thankful for it.
This was the answer I was looking for, and it broke the ice. Now
the panel began to talk realistically about the proposed drastic budget
cuts. Dr. Veverke added that my question had implied that without the
pressure of the budget cuts bring there would be no cooperation. He
pointed out that European instruments were proposed to fly on Contour,
and that if it was canceled he would have to go to them and tell them
that they couldn't fly there instruments anymore.
This was what I had been trying to elicit with my first pitch, but
as Veverke did not state it clearly, I finally ended up asking him
directly, "So, then, there already is a great deal of international
cooperation and the instruments fly when space becomes available?". Dr.
Veverke answered simply "Yes", but one of the other panel members then
went on to explain that the Champollion lander had originally been a
joint US-French proposal for Rosetta, but that NASA funding had been
inadequate to meet the Rosetta schedule. His conclusion was that if the
United States wanted to cooperate it would need funds to do it, and he
listed joint programs currently underway.
The moderator then asked about cooperation with Russia, and Dr.
Veverke responded that we are sending them a lot of money to build
components for the ISS which they don't deliver and we then have to
build back home. Though Dr. Veverke is quite right to be angry with the
Russians for failing to keep their commitments on ISS, and is quite
right is thinking that their failure has led in part to the proposed
NASA budget reductions, I am of the opinion that there is little to be
gained from expressing it.
First, direct additional payments to Russia for the Service Module
amount to $60 million, with another $100 million being suggested to buy
Progress supply flights. While some of the $1.2 billion space station
slippage expense may be attributable to the Russians, a major share of
this could just as well be attributed to US manufacturer delays in
providing modules. If, and only if, the US decides to go it alone will
space station costs rise higher, and Goldin put off issuing contracts
for US replacement components as long as he could. But Congress
demanded that these be put in place now, and that work on these be
started. Second, there is nothing NASA opponents like more than to see
space scientists fighting with the manned space side: reductions in the
manned space side do not lead to more money for space science, but
instead to the opposite: space science gets reduced too.
Another of the panelists pointed out that while significant
earlier, Russian space science was dead at the moment, as they had more
pressing problems to deal with. Attempting to divert anger away from
Russian failure, I asked Paul Wesiman about the cuts which had occurred
A follow-up question about the selection of the programs elicited
a response (from Dr. Veverke, I think, but my tape is not of sufficient
quality to be sure) that all the programs together formed a graduated
step approach to acquiring knowledge of asteroids and meteorites, and
that Contour fit in with this step by step approach. This seemed to be
a return to the theme that the panel had originally hoped to convey: the
projects formed a stepped approach, and Champollion fit in to those
steps. But this morning's reality was that thanks to the House Space
Subcommittee the entire stairway was now in jeopardy, and the panel
moderator quickly pointed that out by adding the Mars and Mercury probes
to the list of projects.
In the end, Fred Whipple turned out to be the star of the morning's
session, though for reasons no one on the panel had ever anticipated.
Taking the opportunity provided by a question concerning the desire for
a sample return mission, Whipple started by pointing out that he had
been around since the very beginnings of the space program, from
satellites through to Apollo. It was a shame to be asking for pennies
to continue work on comets, especially since they hit the Earth all the
time. Whipple reeled off a list of those Earth impact events he knew
about, such as Tunguska and Sikote Ailin, discussed the possibility of
tsunami's such as those they had seen in "Deep Impact", and then told
everyone that this was a real danger that they needed to deal with, and
that they would simply have to spend the money to deal with it.
Another of the panelists immediately followed Whipple's lead and
expanded upon his remarks, noting that the whole program cost about 70
cents per year, with each individual probe costing a $1 per US citizen,
about the cost of 2 small candy bars (another panelist interjected that
that was now the cost of one large candy bar), or 1/2 of a Big Mac.
God bless him: Ninety two years old, Whipple immediately and
squarely faces up to the reality of the proposed budget cuts, explains
to the audience in very simple terms why the research is important to
them, and tells them how much it will cost. By doing thus he also
provided an opportunity for others to make even more statements framing
the problem in a way that the public could understand.
Reviewing the results, my advice to Dr. Veverke is to let Dr.
Whipple handle the press side of things for Contour: The way senior
scientists get to be senior scientists is by getting funding for their
After the session I had a chance to speak with Mike Ahearn, and he
gave me some interesting background on Deep Impact. Some years back
NASA had rejected the original proposal for the spacecraft, and at that
point its principle designer had asked Mike to take it over. Interest
in the asteroid threat had then grown, and now entirely unexpectedly
Mike found himself in charge of the one asteroid and comet project which
has the greatest chance of surviving the budget cuts, should they be
voted through by the full House and Senate.
After the morning press conference I had lunch and proceeded to get
onto the internet to learn more about the proposed NASA budget cuts.
Despite Don's assuring evaluation that morning that the process was
still in the preliminary stages, I myself was not so assured, and
expected (and am still expecting) a fight ahead.
On the way to the banquet I met Dr. Binzel, and had a chance to ask
him about a problem with the Torino scale which Clark Chapman and I had
discussed at the initial reception on Sunday: the Torino Scale lacks any
time frame. For example, let's say you have a Class 9 alert: Is the
regional devastation going to take place a month from now, or a decade
away? Binzel told me that the classes were to be applied on a 100 year
time frame: his response reflects in a major way his understanding of
the impact threat.
Over hors d'ouvres I had a chance to speak with Steve Ostro about
impact rates and manned flight, as I mentioned earlier. Entertainment
by the Purple Valley Band had been arranged by Cornell's own science
support staffer Rick Kline, and he gave a fine performance on the Yamaha
five string bass.
Among my dinner companions was Dr. Narender K. Chandel, who has
been working through the ancient Indian records of cometary appearances,
and Dr. Chandel related to me the state of work in India. From about
200 BCE to about 600 AD Indian astronomers made long detailed records of
cometary appearances, and there are other records describing events
before this time period which stretch back to hoary antiquity, often in
the form of four line quatrains, using poetic language to describe the
comets. It seems that the Indian National Academy of Science had been
sponsoring the translation of these ancient records, but several years
ago they had stopped the funding for this, with work on several texts in
various stages of completion. I asked Narender if the texts were
available as electronic files: he told me that they had not been
converted to that form yet, and went on to detail the state of work on
them: several had been fully translated, but not published; several had
been partially translated, with no final working text.
Dr. Chandel can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, and while he
has generously offered to send off-prints of his own articles by fax and
cover the costs himself, I'd like to suggest to the Conference members
that if they contact him they offer to provide funds to cover his mail
and copying expenses. Also, as near as I understand the situation, it
would take minimal clerical and scanning costs to complete the earlier
work of Indian National Academy of Science on the ancient texts and make
them widely available in electronic form: something say on the order of
$100-$200 for each text. At these kind of prices some Conference
participants may want to consider financing this work either on an
institutional or private basis.
Since coverage already exists for historical and myth records from
the Ancient Near East, China, the Pacific Basin, and North and South
America (at least I hope so), Narender's work adds India to the list,
with only Africa missing. While we have had one report from French
colonial Africa, to my knowledge there is no one working through the
African historical and myth records proper. In point of fact it is much
to be regretted that there was only one African American at the ACM
conference, and I personally regret not getting an opportunity to speak
with him to see if he might be of help.
After dinner I saw Don Yeomans and spoke with him briefly about
Deep Space 1 going into safe mode that very morning, with the closest
approach to asteroid Braille scheduled to take place that very evening.
Returning to the hotel, I learned that the spacecraft had only been
partially recovered by the time of the Braille encounter.
As I left from the hotel I once again ran into my friend from the
ESA whose luggage Delta Arilines had misplaced. Despite Delta's most
recent promises, his luggage had still not arrived: he was livid by
now, and wanted to sue them. I suggested to him that under
international baggage agreements the most he might be able to get from
Delta would only be partial compensation, and that his best course of
action might be to contact his travel agent back home about bringing
suit in an European court, as the Delta representatives here in the US
were clearly worse than useless.
DAY 4: THURSDAY, 29 JULY
In the morning word came in that Deep Space 1 had only been
recovered enough to provide images after its closest encounter with
Braille. While Deep Space 1 had demonstrated a number of the
technologies that are going to be necessary for asteroid or cometary
diversion or destruction, the bottom line is that if either diversion or
destruction had been necessary, the attempt would have failed, and we'd
now be going the way of the dinosaur. Just my opinion, but while
missions such as Contour are going to be really helpful in nailing down
the composition of threatening comets, and thus determining the size of
the necessary charges and details of their firing, intercept technology
development and demonstration missions like Deep Impact should have the
The morning sessions were pretty quiet, and I took the opportunity
this presented to drop back onto the net to see how the fight to prevent
the cutbacks in NASA's budget was going. The Mars faction of US space
enthusiasts had been raising all hell about the House Subcommittee's
proposal to cut future Mars landers, and Boeing had not been too happy
either about the loss of sales of Delta launchers. In response to their
pleas one of the Republican leaders, Rep. Walker I think, came up with a
new proposal: eliminate Americorps, President Clinton's own employment
program for inner city Afro-American and rural poor young people, and
give the $400 million to NASA for Mars probes. By doing this his intent
was clearly either to bring space supporters into opposition with
President Clinton, or President Clinton into opposition with NASA, and
most likely both.
Despite his effort, cries of pain as well as direct threats were
now being heard by those on the sub-committee, and it was clear that the
Republicans had made a major political error by proposing to cut the
NASA budget by such a large amount, thus allowing Clinton and by
association Vice President Gore to appear as NASA's champions, despite
their earlier lukewarm support for the agency.
The topic for the afternoon sessions was observational bias, and
several major papers were given, of which two deserve special mention
G. B. Valsecchi of the IAS Planetlogia Rome gave a paper ascribing
the Taurid complex to three biases. The first bias is that secular
perturbations induce a certain degree of alignment of the osculating w
of main belt asteroids to that of Jupiter, located at w ~ 13; the second
bias is induced by the density of stellar backgrounds from the Galactic
Plane; and the third bias comes from the +30 - +60 latitudes at which
observations are made and their time of year, April through October.
I have my own theory of Taurid bias, one based not on observation
errors but instead on human character. I think that Clube and Napier
focused on a hypothesis of the breakup of one comet out of human nature.
For if the impact events the historical records describe actually are
attributable to many different objects, instead of to the breakup of one
particular comet, then we are indeed in deep kimchi, as they say. And
clearly if these impact events are not time bound to the breakup of this
one comet, then the only reason for the current quiet period is simple
David Rabinowitz of JPL presented some analysis of the new NEAT data
that he has been working on with Eleanor Helin. (I was told that Dr.
Helin was unable to make it to the ACM due to a recent leg injury and
that she had just reached the stage of hobbling around on crutches back
home. I'm sure all here wish her a speedy recovery.)
One of the most remarkable things about their study was the claim of
reliable recoveries down to H=23, diameter 100 meters or so, whereas
most will only claim reliable recoveries down to H=20, or maybe H=20.5
on a really good night. Their new equation is N(H) ~ e**0.9H, giving
750+_250 Near Earth Asteroids for H<18. If this is right, then they
calculate that we may be able to recover most of the larger (diameter 1
kilometer or greater) potential impactors within ten years, provided
that the budget for the detection effort is doubled.
On a more personal note, it must follow that if Rabinowitz and
Helin's new asteroid estimates are right, then from the historical data
we must infer that long period comets present a much, much greater
threat to man than has previously been realized. This will then of
necessity entail a new observational challenge of an entirely different
sort, and the necessity of developing observational programs to deal
with it. The only other alternative conclusion possible would be that
the impact effects of smaller impactors, those with magnitude H>23, has
been severely underestimated, which is not too likely.
During the break I once again heard bitching and moaning about the
Minor Planet Center's "Secret File", in other words the unconfirmed one
time observations. Once again I quickly ascertained that absolutely no
one wants to take Brian Marsden's job, put in the longer hours, as well
as put up with the grief from all the orbit calculators out there. And
as if Brian does not have enough to do, some at the ACM also proposed
that the Minor Planet Center begin search coordination functions. For
some reason it does not seem to have occurred to these people that maybe
they ought to do this themselves.
DID YOU HEAR THE ONE ABOUT THE TRAVELING SALESLADY?
After the afternoon sessions I went to the hotel bar to get a bite
to eat before the evening's poster sessions. After finishing dinner,
while nursing a soda waiting for the poster session to begin, I began a
conversation with an attractive blonde, or rather I should say that she
struck up a conversation with me.
She told me she was from Philadelphia, and had come to Cornell on a
sales call. As it was too late to get a plane back home, she had
decided to spend the night. In my reply, I lied, and told her that I
was a journalist up covering the wanker scientists who were meeting at
the hotel. Her reply was remarkable, and I repeat it here in full:
"Ooooh, I know. I saw them out in the lobby."
Continuing along, our saleslady mentioned that she had not seen her
husband for three weeks, as her husband was a salesman too, and had also
been traveling on business.
"Ah, then, Absence makes the heart grow fonder?", I jested.
"No, not exactly.", she replied.
"Perhaps then its a case of absence makes the heart go wander?"
"Something more like that."
I found it somewhat flattering when our saleslady expressed regret
when I told her that I had to go back to work and up to the evening's
poster session. I wish that I could claim to you that I made some great
sacrifice that evening on the behalf of the study of impact events, but
the simple fact of the matter is that I have not yet fallen to Cousin
Todd's level, and don't fool around with married women.
That evening's poster session was quite remarkable. Frank
Kinsmore, Monroe Community College, retired, who has been working on the
Finger Lakes as impact structures, presented another new hypothesis of
his: That the Lake Michigan-Lake Huron ring was the world's biggest
visible impact crater. If you trace the curve formed by the eastern
shore of the state of Wisconsin through to the archipelago that is the
upper part of the state of Michigan, it forms an almost perfect curve;
and as we know there is only one way that perfect curves of that size
have been formed on Earth: through impact events. In Kinsman's view,
Michigan itself forms the uplift in the center of the impact crater,
with Ontario's Lake Huron shore forming the crater's eastern edge.
Kinsman compares the structure with that of Brent Crater, which is very
similar in form, but not size.
I stopped briefly at Tom van Flandern's poster, where he suggested
that Mars may be a surviving moon of Planet-X, the destruction of which
by impact has been proposed as a source of the asteroids and thus of
meteorites as well. It has been often and widely pointed out that the
gravitational field of Jupiter would prevent the formation of Planet-X
in that particular orbit, but in the time since the ACM Conference it
has been announced that Jupiter is now not in the orbit it was in
originally, so the problem must now be considered anew. For the time
being, I agreed with Gunter Kargl and Axel Hagerman, who explained that
the relative lack of craters in Mars' northern hemisphere is most likely
attributable to Mars having had only one thermo-convective flow earlier
in its history: Axel's girlfriend models Mars' convective flows, and
that is her specialty.
Moving on, I had a really good chat with John Brownlee of the
Catalina Sky Survey. John's poster was on the efficiencies of different
methods of automatically detecting asteroids and comets in CCD output
data, and as he was focused very much on the working level, I found my
conversation most interesting and very efficient. John described the
computers and network system that he had available, as well as the
problems he was hitting with noise and poor sky charts at magnitude 20.5
or so. From what he said, it is clear to me that sky charts are going
to have to be improved if smaller NEOs are going to be detected by Earth
John had done the work on detection algorithm efficiencies on his
own, while at the same time taking care of all the ordinary day to day
business at Catalina, and like every other system programmer I know of
in a similar situation he was putting in ungodly hours each week, week
after week, and month after month, with no end in sight. On a more
positive note Grant Stokes of Linear had taken John under his wing, so
there will be at least one more scientist available for work on
automatic detection algorithms. John mentioned in passing that new
CCDs may be available for U.S. telescopes in the near future.
I stopped at Narender's poster briefly as the session ended, made my
apology to him for going off to pollute the temple, and proceeded down
to the hotel bar with the two Saranac ales that I had stashed away under
a table. (From their comments I'm sure that all the attendees were most
favorably impressed by the fine New York wines that Cornell had selected
for the conference, as well as be the extremely fine Saranac beer. Even
my German friends Gunter and Axel had been impressed by it.)
On the way to the bar I once again met up with the ESA researcher
whose baggage Delta Airlines had misplaced. He had finally managed to
get an e-mail through to his travel agent in Germany, but due the time
differences he could expect no reply until the next day. By that time
it would make no difference, as he was scheduled to leave by then.
The hotel bartender assured me that there was no problem with
bringing the Saranac beers into the bar, and also told me that our
saleslady had left for the evening accompanied by another fellow from
the bar. I settled down, turned on CNN, and learned that some
Republicans had broken ranks and that the tax cut proposal had been
defeated. Finally there was at last hope that the proposed NASA budget
cuts would not be forced through and set in stone, but that instead
there would be time to organize a proper fight against them.
DAY 5: FRIDAY, 30 JULY
THE SECRET CATASTROPHIST
As there were no papers that I wanted to hear until David Speidel's
analysis of the distribution of Earth craters, which was scheduled for
later in the day, I began my morning with coffee and cigarettes at the
tables outside the hotel entrance. I was soon joined by Gunter Kargl
and Axel Hagerman from Rosetta, and an Italian researcher soon stopped
by to ask Gunter about the instrument review he was scheduled to make
for Mars Express.
After Gunter had finished talking with her, we picked up our
conversation where we had left off. I stressed the importance of
getting an accurate crater history for Mars, and Gunter told me about a
very good German effort begin undertaken by a group in Berlin. Gunter
was mildly critical of their effort, as he did not see how they could
possibly use crater erosion data to estimate the amount of time that had
passed since the original impact. Personally, it sounds to me a whole
lot better than anything that NASA is doing.
We chatted some more about various things, but then it was time for
Gunter and Axel to leave, as they had to get ready for their return
trip. Almost immediately after Gunter and Axel left, Don Yeomans showed
up and joined me. I had the great pleasure of telling Don about the
defeat of the tax cut proposal the previous day. Don left, but as Don
was returning to the session, Dr. ReVelle joined me.
What Dr. ReVelle told me is REALLY BIG NEWS which I'm sure will
come as a complete surprise to many Cambridge Conference members. It
has been widely rumored that back in 1994 President Clinton was awoken
at 4 AM due to a high altitude blast in the Pacific. This rumor may now
be moved into the fact category: It turns out that not only President
Clinton, but also Vice President Gore, received that same 4 AM wake up
call from the Sky Gods. Since then, Dr. ReVelle told me, Vice President
Gore has worked closely with him to make the old acoustic sensor data
available to the scientific community.
As if this was not enough, Dr. ReVelle then went on to tell me that
the reason AFTAC had been so desperate to get Gene Shoemaker's help back
in the mid 1960's was that in those days every time there was an
airburst, the Air Force had had to scramble the strategic bombing fleet
and keep them flying on standby for hours on end. In those days the
satellites were limited in coverage and subject to failure, and
vulnerable to attack, and so the acoustic sensors had been a major part
of the United States' early warning system.
I brought up the subject of the current arms race in developing
countries: while launch officers in the United States, Russia, and
China are all trained about the NEO problem, launch officers in the
newly armed developing nations are nearly completely ignorant of it.
Dr. ReVelle noted that back during the Persian Gulf War we had come
about 5 hours from disaster, as if an airburst which had occurred over
the Pacific during that time had occurred over Israel, all hell would
have broken loose. We agreed that something needed to be done.
So that's the BIG NEWS, Benny: Vice President Gore is a closet
catastrophist. This may sound like a lot, but you have to remember that
an earlier Vice President once compared the job to drinking a warm glass
of spit. From my interviews at the American Astronautical Society
meeting earlier this year with staffers from the Office of Management
and Budget, I learned that there had been no internal Whitehouse
discussion of the cancellation of Clementine II: whatever Gore's
concern's were about the NEO problem, he was completely out of the
Whitehouse-OMB loop when the vital decision on Clementine II had had to
be made. Of course, it is always possible that Gore spoke about it with
President Clinton, who in turn then must have totally ignored Gore's
Having gotten pounded for his concerns about CFCs and the ozone
layer, and about the production of green house gases, Gore is simply
unwilling to publicly come out and talk about the NEO problem for fear
of being labeled as a kook or science wonk once again. But in the end
on this, even though we're all working as hard as we can on essentially
no money, and even though we have just begun research on smaller
historical impacts, the fault lies with us: our data is simply not firm
enough at this time for Gore to come out publicly and tell the people of
the United States that NEOs are a very real and very serious problem and
that were going to have to spend money to deal with it.
All in all, you're better off having a Representative like George
Brown looking after your interests rather than a Vice President. Of
course, if Gore does become President, things might change. But right
now Gore is still lagging George Bush Jr. in the polls, despite Bush's
problems with drug issues, and Bush's understanding of the NEO problem
is simply unknown.
Talking with Dr. ReVelle I missed David Speidel's talk on his study
of impact craters, but I soon caught up with him and he generously sat
down with me at the tables outside the hotel entrance and presented it
again to me personally. Based upon the distribution of crater sizes,
Dave estimates that Earth craters have been formed by two distinct
populations. One (myself at least) might see these populations as
having been a group of original large asteroids and a group of smaller
asteroids created by collisions among the larger ones. Dave tells me
that Clark Chapman doesn't agree with him about this at all: I don't
know how you feel, but I personally would pay good money to see Clark
give a paper on crater size distribution to a group of geologists.
One of the most interesting things that David told me was that we
know the composition of the impactors for only 8 of the 152 large Earth
craters. The Canadian Geological Survey was working on this, but then
several years back the Canadian government cut off their funding. Its a
familiar song, one we all know the lyrics to, now just where have we
heard it before? The Australian version sung by the mates while
drinking their beers? The British Gilbert and Sullivan operetta
version? The French chanson, with its dusky tones? Certainly there's
a Russian version, good to dance to; it's popular in Eastern Europe as
well. Oh my, who can forget the wailng of that strange Indian
adaptation! And then there's that always popular Italian version, with
its upbeat melody and catchy timing.
What the hell, are these guys all waiting for the US to pick up the
David has copies of his work available, and he can be reached at
Queen's College of the City University of New York at email@example.com.
By now I was exhausted and simply sat outside the hotel waiting for
the buses to leave, carrying some of the ACM attendees off to a lake
cruise dinner. I already had gotten more information than I could
absorb, and despite the opportunity the lake cruise presented, simply
needed time to digest what I had already picked up.
My friend from the ESA whose baggage Delta Airlines had lost
greeted me as he started out of the hotel on his return trip to Europe.
His travel agent had called Delta, and they had responded quickly,
assuring him that they would pay everything that they were required to
pay anyway: 50% of the value of the clothes they had lost for him.
There would be no payment for the lost time, the inconvenience, the
general mess Delta had made of his trip. I suggested to him that he
immediately file a claim stating the value of his lost clothing as high
as possible, but he declined. These things happen you see; it was
already too late; and nothing was left of his anger except resignation
to the situation. His own resignation reminded me in many ways of NEO
researchers looking at their funding situation.
My own conclusion was that whenever you have to fly Delta be sure
to carry your valuables and essentials onboard with you.
On the way back to my lodgings I ran into Deborah from Reuter's,
who was sneaking off with her husband and children to a restaurant
where, as she put it, the scientists would not show up. One week was
enough, in her opinion, and in mine as well by now. I returned to my
lodgings, showered, and headed out for a quiet dinner, followed by
another fine performance by Rick Kline and the Purple Valley Band at the
Number Nine Bar in Collegetown.
On my way back to my lodgings I stopped in once again at the hotel
bar to check up yet once more time on how the budget battle was
proceeding. Entirely by accident, I ran into a C-Span re-broadcast of
the Capitol memorial service for George Brown which had been held
earlier in the week. His widow got up to speak: Benny, she is a full 30
years younger than he was, and she spoke very movingly about how they
had met when she was a college student.
I sure am going to miss him.
My conclusions about the various topics brought up at the ACM have
already been given at the points at which they were raised during the
conference. As for the ACM itself, there had been some discussion of
splitting it up further by asteroids, comets, and meteors, but I'm not
so sure this would be such a good idea. One thing for sure, I'd like to
see a complete session added which would be entirely dedicated to work
on Earth impact events: You know, these things aren't just theoretical
Best wishes -
CCCMENU CCC for 1999