impact science and the culture of total war into the study of the planetary

Impact science and the culture of total war into the

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impact science and the culture of total war into the study of the planetary future. The Prophetic TurnSince the 1930s, asteroid collision rates had been understood well enough for some astronomers to have recognized the possibility of future impacts with Earth, but they had not dwelt on this possibility or framedtheir work in terms of human consequences.7 In 1967, a predicted close approach by the asteroid Icarus prompted a student exercise at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) into how to prevent an imagined impact. The find ings were published (Kleiman, 1979), but were not pursued beyond the classroom or the popular press. It was only in 1980, when Luis Alvarez and others examined the possibility of future impacts as part of an attempt to formulate a new vision for NASA, that asteroids began to be constructed as a threat by the research community (Chapman & Morrison, 1989: 276). The following year, NASA sponsored a workshop at Snowmass, CO, on the consequences of asteroid impacts.8 In addition to questions about how best to detect near-Earth asteroids - the traditional observational domain of astronomy - the workshop also considered questions about the vulnera bility of society if agriculture were to be wiped out for a year, the instabil ity of social and economic structures in the aftermath of an impact, and how to deflect or destroy a potential impactor, a question already antici pated in Alvarez's analysis. Such questions firmly located asteroids within the sphere of human action. The workshop also brought astronomers into direct contact with defencescientists. According to the astronomer Tom Gehrels, who pre sented details of his new Spacewatch asteroid survey to the workshop, already at this time astronomers recognized that the energies involved in deflecting an asteroid would require nuclear weapons and they therefore asked 'the people familiar with nuclear engineering to take an interest in these problems' (Gehrels, 2001). In fact, some of the defence scientists were quick to do just that. Unlike many ofthe civilian scientists who were slow to pursue the impact threat, one of the defence scientists at the Lawrence livermore National Laboratory wrote a report on the asteroid threat as early as 1984 and impacts with Earth were a favourite topic of conversation among Lowell Wood's group at the lab at this time (Broad, 1985: 107,190). Wood was one of Edward Teller's proteges at Livermore and, like Teller, he was one of the most active proponents of a space-based missile defence system, an idea endorsed by Reagan in his famous Star Wars speech of 1983 and officially launched as the SDI 2 years later. Wood and Teller both met regularly with officials in the Reagan administration to brief them on the work of Wood's group and on the potential of nuclear-powered X-ray lasers to form a defence shield. In 1987, after the failures of the x-ray laser project became apparent, Wood and Teller began to promote 'Brilliant Pebbles', a space-based system of small autonomous kinetic-energy weapons(Broad, 1992; FitzGerald,
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