L. Neil Smith's
Number 187, August 19, 2002


Remarks To The Fifth Annual Convention Of The Mars Society
by L. Neil Smith

Special to TLE

The University of Colorado
Boulder, Colorado
August 10, 2002

There is an old Chinese curse, "May you live in interesting times".

In exactly that sense, it's been "interesting" to listen to the other speakers at this conference as they try, one after another, each in his own way, to deal with the fact that very few of their fellow human beings seem interested in going for the "carrot" the rest of us desire so passionately, of space exploration, settlement, and development.

As the author of 22 science fiction novels, from The Probability Broach in 1980 to Tom Paine Maru, Forge of the Elders, and most recently, The American Zone, I've tended to be optimistic about the future and have regarded my fellow sapients in a fairly positive light.

But political events following September 11, 2001 have convinced me that people are often readier to respond to the stick of impending doom than any carrot we can offer them. And the mass media, who have nothing to sell but fear itself, are even readier to encourage that attitude.

Okay, then, how about this ... ?

Last June, a small asteroid "about the size of a football pitch" passed within 75,000 miles of the Earth -- that's three times closer than the Moon -- in what the mass media were quick to describe as a "near-miss", but which I'm certain George Carlin would have called a "near hit!" The eerie part of the story, for me, anyway, is that the asteroid wasn't spotted until three days after its closest approach to Earth.

Had it struck the Earth, it would have done so with a force of about ten megatons, roughly a thousand times the energy released by the Hiroshima A-bomb. Had it struck almost anywhere in the northern hemisphere it could have levelled a large city and killed millions of people.

75,000 miles.

A third of the distance to the Moon.

Only three times the circumference of the Earth.

We should have felt the breeze as it flew by.

A couple of weeks ago, I'm sure you recall how we all heard about a much larger asteroid, about 1.2 miles in diameter, that may or may not miss us in 2019. If it misses, it will have yet another chance in 2060. If it hits, it will be a true continent-wrecker, which human civilization -- not to mention we and our children -- probably won't survive.

That's the bad news. The even worse news is that there happen to be thousands of other "Earth-grazing" killer asteroids out there, waiting to cross the orbit of our world and make a cataclysmic call. Which makes me wonder what George Carlin would make of the expression "Earth-grazing".

As you know, asteroid and other such impacts have already strongly affected the natural evolution of Earth. They change human history, as well.

The best-known cataclysmic event, of course, was the so-called Cretaceous-Tertiary or "K-T" impact (apparently geologists can't spell), 65 million years ago, which scientists now believe wiped out the dinosaurs along with about 75% of all other life on Earth, making room for the eventual rise of mammals -- us -- as Earth's dominant lifeforms.

The K-T asteroid, about four miles in diameter, struck obliquely on what is now the northern coast of the Yucatan, spraying North America with molten debris, killing everything on that continent in seconds, setting every forest on the planet on fire, and actually bulging the Earth's crust on the opposite side, opening a series of volcanoes that did nearly as much environmental damage as the original impact. A bigger asteroid, at a higher speed, or coming in at a little straighter angle, and Earth might have burst like an egg struck by a bullet.

Fewer people know about the "P-T" or Permian-Triassic event that occurred 140 million years earlier than the K-T, killing about 90% of the planet's species -- including reptiles that had been the planet's dominant lifeforms until then -- making room for the eventual rise of dinosaurs.

Some scientists believe that there have been between half a dozen and a dozen "planet-wrecking", or "extinction-level" events like the K-T and the P-T, and countless smaller ones in geological history. We are only now beginning to understand how they may have affected human history.

For example, it was recently suggested by a presumably official team of People's Republic scientists that the first Chinese dynasty ended when an asteroid struck near enough to its capital city to bury it.

Similarly, a very large "fossil" crater has been discovered close enough to ancient Sumeria that it may explain what happened to that civilization. Partly as a consequence, a number of scientists are now re-examining the "Great Flood" myths that nearly all cultures seem to have, with reference to tsunamis raised by asteroid impacts in the ocean.

But if all of that seems too remote in time and space to have any relevance today, consider the fact that on the same night in 1866 that the city of Chicago burned, a dozen other massive fires raged within a 100-mile radius. The greatest of these, in a town called Peshtigo killed 1200 people. It's pretty obvious Mrs. O'Leary's cow got a bum rap. Researchers now believe that these fires were created by a meteor storm, and that today many forest fires are started in the just same way.

Closer in time, although further away geographically, the famous 1908 Tunguska, Siberia event didn't have quite the effect on humanity as the Chicago Fire, but we have reached a point now where Earth is settled so densely that few such asteroids will miss in the future. Statistically, we're about 15,000,000 years overdue for another K-T event.

Actually, though, that's the good news -- at least for the Mars Society -- because it gives the great majority of humanity a very compelling reason to put thousands of their fellow beings permanently into space, a reason that everybody who's ever been interestd in dinosaurs, or visited the Barringer Crater in Arizona, can and will understand.

So recently, as a sort of personal thought experiment -- and by the authority vested in me as the author of 22 science fiction novels -- I have taken it upon myself to devise a three-legged program for the purpose of preventing "extinction-level" events. And this program (by some strange coincidence) requires a massive human presence in space. My part will be to write an "epic" novel about the program called Ceres, and a popular nonfiction book called Destroyer of Worlds.

The first "leg" on which the program stands is a permanently manned optical and radio observatory on the far side of the Moon. (In my forthcoming novel Ceres, it will be called the "Gary Larson Far Side Observatory.) An unmanned "satellite" facility at the Langrange Point on the opposite side of the earth will provide range-finding parallax.

Of course, somebody will have to run the McDonald's and the liquor store and the gunshop and the Wal-Mart that Lunar astronomers will need.

Next, because even Bruce Willis know that you can't just blast asteroids out of the way with nukes (which would only convert a cosmic elephant rifle bullet into a cosmic shotgun blast) the program stands on a second "leg" which is a permanently manned facility within the Asteroid Belt -- on Ceres or on Pallas -- where experimental subjects are abundant, for conducting research into capturing and deflecting asteroids.

Of course, somebody will have to run the McDonald's and the liquor store and the gunshop and the Wal-Mart that will be needed out there, too.

Finally, tens of thousands of little asteroid hunter/killer ships will constitute the third leg of the program. My preference would be that they be fusion-powered -- although that's a topic for another lecture -- and owned and operated as family businesses. They'll use the sightings from the observatory and technology from the Asteroid Belt research facility to capture and/or deflect rocks that threaten Earth -- and what have now become the first of the other "Settled Worlds".

At this point, landing on and settling Mars becomes icing on the cake. And somebody will have to run the McDonald's and the liquor store and the gunshop and the Wal-Mart that will be expected on Mars, too.

Wal-Mart -- at least in Fort Collins -- has an exceptionally good produce section, which brings us back to carrots again. The original carrot -- for us in the Mars Society -- was simply to get out there, or at least to be a significant part of making it happen. But a second "carrot" will be the wealth that we obtain from the metallic asteroids we discover and prevent from destroying human civilization. I've been informed by various experts that a so-called iron-nickle asteroid a mile in diameter contains more gold than has ever been mined here on Earth.

But as Ron Popeil would certainly tell the world, that's not all! There's a third carrot, as well. Carbonaceous chondrites, which happen to constitute about 70% of the asteroids (nobody knows why that's so, but they may have brought seeds of life to Earth, the first organic molecules, three billion years ago) are "carbonaceous" -- and not just ordinary boring chondrites -- because they contain kerogen. That's the same stuff that distinguishes ordinary boring shale from oil shale.

Asteroids contain a lot of water, too, so that a civilization established among them will not just struggle to survive, it will absolutely flourish, getting rich while protecting the Earth, and Mars, as well, from the scum -- or at least the debris -- of the universe.

Thank you. Now are there any questions?

Three-time Prometheus Award-winner L. Neil Smith is the author of 23 books, including The American Zone, Forge of the Elders, Pallas, The Probability Broach, Hope (with Aaron Zelman), and his collection of articles and speeches, Lever Action, all of which may be purchased through his website "The Webley Page" at lneilsmith.org. Autographed copies may be had from the author at lneil@lneilsmith.org.

L. Neil Smith writes regular columns for The Libertarian Enterprise, Sierra Times RoadHouse, and for Rational Review.



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