A side effect of looking toward the skies is that you can’t help but notice stuff moves around up there. Rusty Schweickart, who got closer to the stars than most humans have or, at this rate, ever will, understands that everything up there is actually falling, and some of it’s falling toward us.
Schweickart walked in space in 1969, regarding his homeworld from outside the lunar module during the Apollo 9 mission. A scientifically grounded but nonetheless mystic-minded person, drifting in a void that is both mystical and governed by physical laws, he look back at Earth, and was awestruck.
“It is so small and so fragile and such a precious little spot in that universe that you can block it out with your thumb. And you realize that on that small spot, that little blue-and-white-thing, is everything that means anything to you — all of history and music and poetry and art and death and birth and love.” By some chance, he felt, he’d been picked out to realize this, to be “the sensing element for man.” — The New Yorker, Feb. 26, 2011
Back on the ground, Schweickart became concerned about the threat of near-Earth objects, the technical name for meteors, asteroids, comets, bolides and other masses of rock, dust, ice and gas that pass close by the planet on their orbits through the solar system. Think about Shoemaker-Levy 9, the comet that struck Jupiter in 1994: The holes it left are the size of Earth itself. Of particular concern today is the asteroid 99942 Apophis, three hundred meters across, which has a 1 in 45,000 chance of colliding with Earth in 2036 … gravitational quirks aside. Those aren’t such terrifying odds, but the Arizona Meteor Crater, the Yucatán collision, Tunguska, and the culture-eradicating Bukit Bunuh meteorite all argue in favor of vigilance.
Schweickart’s foundation to study and deflect dangerous NEOs is something of an orphan. Nobody wants serious responsibility for nudging asteroids aside with spacecraft loaded with dense metals, or, in the worst-case-scenarios, nuking them out of orbit. Rusty Schweickart prays he’s not a Cassandra, but when we see the inevitable coming, what can we do but shout?