Insufficient "RMA" is Hazardous to Our Future

by Bob Kobres


When the second person, who is by the way an avid spelunker, described this cartoon to me I felt that perhaps what I had at first viewed as an amusing coincidence was rather an obscure invitation to respond. This feeling was reinforced when I picked up the August issue of Science Digest and found readers' comments on the demise of the dinosaurs and several articles discussing the strategic defense initiative (SDI). Actually I do live on a hill in northern Georgia (Athens--second home to many University of Georgia students) and I have over the past five years been expressing concern publicly over random meteoroid impacts (Meteorites don't bother me--they've landed safely). I am however not the only "victim" of this concern. For instance Fred L. Whipple (author of the dirty-snowball theory of comet nuclei) in his latest book The Mystery of Comets (1985) states the following:

Protection of the Earth from undesirable impacting bodies is not just a science fiction project for some improbable future. The cost might be comparable to, even smaller than, the world's current military expenditures. We could choose to do it now. We could choose to protect ourselves from asteroids and comets rather than from each other.

James E. Oberg (a frequent contributor to Science Digest) makes this statement in his 1984 book entitled The New Race for Space:

Giant meteor craters on all solid surfaced worlds of the Solar System are mute but eloquent testimony that we on Earth inhabit a "celestial falling rock zone," and it is only a matter of time before another "dis-asteroid" strikes. Rough calculations of the immense cost of such a cataclysm, multiplied by its small annual probability, give a figure of several billion dollars a year as a "reasonable" insurance expense to invest in discovering ways to prevent such an eventuality.

My own involvement in this concern stems from a long-held desire to see the East-West arms race come to an end. An outside threat such as this holds much promise for a redirection of talent and resources currently engaged in weapon research and development.

Consider this statement of President Reagan, spoken in Maryland before the students and faculty of Fallston High School on December 4, 1985:

I couldn't help but--one point in our discussions privately with General Secretary Gorbachev--when you stop to think that we're all God's children, wherever we may live in the world, I couldn't help but say to him, just think how easy his task and mine might be in these meetings that we held if suddenly there was a threat to this world from some other species, from another planet, outside in the universe. We'd forget all the little local differences that we have between our countries, and we would find out once and for all that we really are all human beings here on this Earth together.

Hopefully, we will never have to defend ourselves from a race clever enough to voyage to our planet, but if we do not defend ourselves from these absolutely stupid Earth-orbit-crossing comets and asteroids we run the risk of being proven to have a collective intelligence comparable to these space-faring, cosmic objects.

Plato in his Timaeus and Laws informs us that collisions with such bodies have been responsible for losses of history. In his Timaeus, Plato states that the myth of Phaeton is in reality true as it expresses the mutations of the bodies revolving about the Earth; and indicates that, at infrequent intervals, a destruction of terrestrial natures ensues from the devastation of fire. W.V. Engelhardt, a German expert on meteoritic phenomena, reinforces Plato's contention in a 1979 article entitled "Phaethons Streuz--ein Naturereignis?" ("Phaethon's fall--a natural event?").

British astronomers Victor Clube and Blll Napier ln their excellent work The Cosmic Serpent (1982) make this observation:

That there have been catastrophic impacts within historic or prehistoric times is, we have seen, not only expected from the astronomy but also seems to be borne out by our analysis of ancient texts. Disasters such as the one described in Exodus have not been taken at face value, however, and this must in the main be due to later interpreters. With no comparable events in their own times to guide them, these later interpreters have tended to play down their significance and even write them off altogether as eschatological embellishment. It has been natural to see the miraculous destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah and the surrounding plain, for example, by the raining down of fire from heaven, as fiction. Maybe--but as Kulik first pointed out, had the Tunguska object fallen four hours later it would have destroyed St. Petersburg (Leningrad). We believe therefore, it is not now reasonable to assume, without further study, that a biblical story of this kind has no foundation, especially as it tells of forewarning of the disasters given to Lot by two angels--the dragon pair.

Indeed it must be counted a scholarly error of extraordinary dimensions that the past history of short-period comets should have been so disguised in the form of mythology that their awesome consequences have been overlooked and have so far found no place at all in conventional prehistory. Standard interpretations of archaeological facts for example take no account at all of comets striking or threatening the Earth.

Kenneth Brecher, an astrophysicist at Boston University, sees a link between the Tunguska event of June 30, 1908 and the June 25, 1178 impact on the Moon, reported by the monk Gervase of Canterbury. Brecher postulates that comet Encke's parent body broke apart some time before 1178, producing a swarm of fragments, some of which could be up to a kilometer across. He believes this debris follows an orbit similar to Encke which orbits the Sun every 3.3 years and that this swarm will enter the Earth-Moon system in 2042.

Keep in mind that a collision between a stony object only 350 meters in diameter and our planet would, if the mass possessed a geocentric velocity of 25 k/sec, liberate the energy equivalent of 5000 megatons TNT within our environment. Thus far in this century two very near encounters with objects massive enough to threaten civilization have been observed. The first detected "strafing" occurred in 1937 when the kilometer-across asteroid Hermes zipped by at a distance approximately twice that of the Moon (768,000 kilometers). The second event occurred in 1976 when a 200-meter-across object came within 1,000,000 kilometers of Earth.

Clube and Napier point out that the etymological roots of the word disaster are dis (evil) and aster (star). We are courting disaster by proceeding with SDI or by being lackadaisical about the need to defend our environment from significant random impacts. The organization I have founded which is comprised of people resolute on: Earth doing ecologically nicely and securing peace around cooperative endeavors linking individual nations kindly (Pro Eden & spACE LINK) is advocating an Earth Defense Initiative (EDI) as a viable alternative to SDI. The research and development demands of EDI will be just as demanding as are those of SDI--perhaps more so. However, this R & D promises to be much more psychologically and economically rewarding for it will be what R. Buckminster Fuller would have called "livingry" R & D as contrasted with weaponry R & D. Because it is novel and involves unfamiliar concepts, the idea of EDI at first may seem too "far out" and politically naive; upon further consideration, however, the political strategy of this proposal generally becomes clear.

Eugene F. Mallove, in his outstanding article "The Bombarded Earth" (Technology Review, July 1985), gets to the key point of why this strategy can work:

. . . a major difference between the threat from asteroids and that from nuclear warfare is that asteroid impacts will inevitably occur unless action is taken to prevent them. The trajectories of heavenly bodies leave no room for obscure calculations regarding the balance of nuclear terror. Indeed, a blue-ribbon advisory group warned the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) in 1980 that "a large asteroid could someday destroy Earth civilization." The group continued: "In the 130 million years the dinosaurs roamed the Earth, they failed to develop the technology to avoid their own extinction. Homo sapiens has developed an adequate technology. He can avert any further extinction by asteroid impact. We think he should."

It is not too unrealistic to view the current East-West situation as analogous to a stalemated game of chess from which the players are unable or unwilling to withdraw. What we are doing is pointing out to the players that they are actually involved in a three dimensional chess game which has a third player. This third player, although very powerful, is a dummy and so cannot be expected to follow the rules of the game. The only way the smarter players can defeat the dummy is by positioning some of their power pieces above their heads so as to keep the dummy in check. The problem of the smarter players though is that the game rules (specifically article IV of the 1967 space treaty) forbid such a move. What are the smart players to do? Will they just ignore the third player and go on playing their futile game knowing full well the dummy could terminate the game at any time? Or will these smart players seek to conspire against the dummy; altering the game rules so as to allow them to move their power pieces together at the same time for the express purpose of cooperatively maintaining check over the dummy? We of Pro Eden & spACE LINK believe the two intelligent players will conspire against the dummy. They will be richly rewarded by doing this for the dummy's domain contains fabulous resources, resources so coveted on Earth that wars could again arise over their control. By cooperatively developing a global outer-space infrastructure our two now very intelligent players will have not only broken free of a very unrewarding game--they will, after the few decades of very active cooperation necessary to accomplish their joint move, have found much more rewarding games to play--cosmic explorer for example. The real winners however, will be we pawns. We will still face many problems such as soil erosion, our tendency toward overpopulation, sectarian conflicts, etc., but just think how much more tractable these problems will have become once we have placed the specter of global warfare behind us and are working within a practiced climate of global political cooperation.

We must put this ghost of past world wars to rest; should such warfare recrudesce, civilization in the northern hemisphere will surely cease. We of Pro Eden & spACE LINK believe that the strongest force pushing us toward such an unwanted recurrence is the fear of a breakthrough in weapon system technology. It is this fear combined with economic profitability that allows and encourages continued weapon system research and development. Historically such R & D has progressively reduced the time for human consideration during a time of crisis. This current project, SDI threatens to reduce time for thought even more. A major purpose of EDI is to redirect this weapon R & D, in an economically beneficial manner, toward a necessary and positive goal--protection of our environment. attainment of this goal, demands active cooperation between East and West. Such cooperation is essential, due to the fact that space-based nuclear devices are the only tools capable of altering the orbit of a large asteroid or comet. Hopefully, after two decades of intense highly visible active cooperation, fear of a weapon system breakthrough will have vanished.

Often when an idea is ready to come of age, the concept will occur quite independently to several people. This phenomenon is now taking place. Fred Whipple's statement (above) certainly implies that military funding be diverted toward planetary defense. However, the most striking example of parallel thinking on this subject appears in articles written by Joseph V. Smith, Louis Block Professor of Physical Sciences at the University of Chicago. In his most recent article "The defence of the Earth" which appears in the British Journal New Scientist (17 April 1986). Professor Smith states the following:

Although we have known about the dangers of nuclear war for 40 years, they continue to increase as technology develops, driven by divisive bickering over social, political, nationalistic and religious matters.

How are my proposals related to the dangers of war, especially the use of nuclear weapons? At the simplest level, huge expenditure on nuclear and other weapons eats up technical resources that we could better use elsewhere. We could apply some of these resources to the programmes I propose here, some for the enrichment of education, and the rest for a host of other needs includinq exchange programmes to promote interactions between people with different histories and philosophies. The fewer the scientists and engineers working on weapons, the slower the pace of development, and the better the chance that diplomatic negotiations can achieve success. In addition, if fewer people worked in weapons factories, and more on building instruments to study asteroids, comets, volcanoes and earthquakes, conventional and nuclear wars might also cause less damage. At a deeper level, there is the hope that a worldwide collaboration of scientists and engineers, working together in groups organised in a diplomatic consensus, will set an example of harmony that will lead us away from present disputes. Instead of acting like primitive tribes hunting heads, we might develop a feeling that we belong to one race irrespective of colour, religion and historical grouping.

The genuine dangers of nuclear war have overshadowed the threat to humankind from natural hazards--hazards that few people fully recognise. Such dangers have become obvious over the past 20 years to geologists and astronomers.

We can now propose sensible methods to prevent or mitigate them. Given worldwide cooperation over the next century, we could kill two birds with one stone if we reduced expenditure on weapons, and engaged the scientists, engineers and manufacturers in new programmes to defend people from natural hazards. All scientific and engineering developments have the capacity for good or evil. Let us choose Dr. Jekyll over Mr. Hyde.

To this I would only add, let us choose EDI over SDI; we and our descendents will be glad we did. For as Dr. Carol S. Rosin, a former defense consultant who is currently President of the Institute for Security and Cooperation in Outer Space (ISCOS), points out in a recent article appearing in Plowshare Press (vol. 11, no. 2, Spring 1986):

International cooperative space R & D is the element that needs to be emphasized in order to end the arms race and steer into space for its unfolding opportunities and benefits.

While peace is the priority, space cooperation holds the keys to conversion, security, economic restructuring and development, and to solving other problems of earth including hunger, health, education and environmental decline.

Cooperation in space will enhance national and world security by providing a new, space age security strategy based upon R & D collaboration. Trust and confidence building will replace threats, secrecy and fear.

We must keep outer space free of weapons. The nuclear devices necessary to nudge about threatening asteroids and comets will not be designed as weapons, they will be configured as tools with elaborate safeguards to ensure against their misuse. Also, unlike the highly enriched uranium-235 reactors (SP-100s for example) deemed necessary for SDI, these devices will be kept very far from Earth. Most of these tools will be stored on the Moon and those that are in service will be attached to space bases that orbit the Earth in a manner which brings them no closer to our planet than half the distance to the Moon.

The decision to protect our environment from significant random impacts as soon as we possibly can should not be argued against on the basis of static probability statistics. These numbers give us only a crude estimate of the average frequency of such events. The "odds" against a damaging collision between Earth and an Earth-orbit-crossing object tell us nothing as to when we should expect the next event to occur. If a collision took place today these static numbers would not change. Our decision to develop an Earth defense system must be based upon the predictable consequences of an abrupt encounter of the worst kind.

Readers please better inform yourself on this subject and let your views be known to the governing bodies.

Robert Engelbert Kobres, Jr.

Executive Director of Pro Eden & spACE LINK and explorer of the cavernous stacks within the University of Georgia Libraries.