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Star Wars is aimed at "rogue nations," but the real threat comes from space debris.

The Sky Is Falling

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One year ago we were wrapping up the Great Y2K Computer Catastrophe. Our occasionally hysterical fears forced us to make the necessary upgrades, and Y2K was "de-catastrophized." The sky was falling, but we got on the job in time. This year the sky is still falling, in its perpetual and very literal sense, but we have almost no one on the job. To the contrary, we're working on the wrong job entirely. Asteroid and comet impacts are not a matter of "if" but "when" — and, of course, "how big?" Earth is bombarded with 45 tons of little stuff daily, but, when objects get up to only 1 mile in diameter, the result can be an "extinction level event." Our planet has endured plenty of "ELEs," including the Chicxulub impact that killed off the dinosaurs 65 million years ago. "Minor" impacts, like the 50-meter Tunguska object of 1908, merely take out the area of a large city, but occur more frequently, about once every century. Despite such alarming discoveries, we remain blasé. We dismiss the astronomical odds involved, even as we cheerfully line up to buy our jackpot-winning lottery tickets. Most incredibly, we're still spending wildly on a missile defense system, as though the real threat came not from the asteroid belt or the Oort cloud, but from North Korea. This is myopic, parochial, and, apparently, impervious to logic — even indestructible. Ronald Reagan's "Strategic Defense Initiative" has acquired all the resilience of the teen-slasher movie villain who is repeatedly dispatched, only to rise again and again just when the hapless survivors' backs are turned. Let the hapless American voter grow inattentive, and some zany anti-ballistic missile scheme is certain to rise from the grave. Both Bush the Younger and Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld are big fans. Meanwhile, we've counted barely 10 percent of the potential planet-smashers crossing Earth's orbit and made no preparation whatever for any actual arrival. NASA's Dr. David Morrison says the only "advance warning" we're likely to get will be a bright light as the impact occurs. While the Hubble Telescope searches the distant edges of space, we've left it to enterprising amateurs like Shoemaker-Levy (1993) or Hale-Bopp (1997) to discover Doom approaching, hopefully at least a day or two away for those who like to party. Busy preparing for the highly-improbable antics of "rogue states," we remain technologically incapable of preventing a wholesale extinction every bit as certain as tomorrow's sunrise. Indulging SDI as a fantasy shield against nuclear Armageddon was dangerous nonsense from the start, but, given the intervening science — especially the universally witnessed 1994 Shoemaker-Levy 9 Comet collision with Jupiter — persisting in SDI moves us into the realm of criminal irresponsibility. If you ran a rogue state out to nuke New York, would you spend millions putting your precious warhead on top of an unreliable, highly visible rocket to advertise your return address for the inevitable and devastating retaliatory strike? Or would you ship it anonymously inside a bale of marijuana? Lunatics do get into power and make idiotic decisions, but the suicidal ICBM launch is fantastic, whereas the homicidal planet impact is a cosmic commonplace. One would think, given all our recent comet, asteroid and dinosaur movies and TV documentaries, that we'd be concerned. The Discovery Channel's "Three Minutes to Impact" portrayed the Earth with oceans and vegetation stripped away displaying 20 times more craters than our bashed and battered moon. Yet, the first human generation to both possess this knowledge and the power to do something about it looks stupidly to North Korea. Apparently, we just don't get geologic time. This must be why we build houses on the beach, operating on the assumption that unpleasant changes would never be so rude as to occur during our life spans. Presumably, the last generation of dinosaurs was even more complacent after millions of years of highly successful evolution. But their number came up. So will ours. Accordingly, we need planetary defense, designed with as many good ideas as we can implement for discovering and then redirecting or destroying incoming smashers. If nothing else, consider the humiliating legacy we could so easily leave the universe, broadcast ever-outward into space along with our "I Love Lucy" reruns. Alien viewers will get CNN reporting how the one nation on Earth with the capacity to prevent human extinction instead spent billions on anti-missile missiles while an Everest-sized chunk of nickel alloy hurtled toward them at 60,000 miles an hour. The smasher with our address on it is now en route with all the inevitability of Newtonian physics. Its orbit was set 750 million years ago to intersect ours next month. No one can disprove this hypothesis, because no one is looking. NASA currently spends $3 million a year for its "survey." NASA veteran and astronomer Eugene Shoemaker estimates that merely doubling the amount could do the job within 10-20 years. Compare this to the billions squandered already on our Star Wars dementia. If we persist in failing to protect ourselves, our alien observers will one day be sadly rattling their tentacles and adding what's left of America and North Korea to their own survey of dangerous space debris. Travis Charbeneau is a free-lance writer who lives in Richmond. Opinions expressed on the Back Page are those of the writer and not necessarily those of Style Weekly.

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