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Presentation to The Eris Society 2000
By L. Neil Smith
Ladies and gentlemen:
Today I feel like a combination of Impey Barbicane and, well, Jor-El.
Jor-El, as you may remember, was the father of Superman who tried to warn everybody on his home planet Krypton that the world was about to explode. Nobody believed him, everybody said it was bad for the tourist business, and before they could arrest him and stuff him down the memory hole, he and his wife launched their little baby toward Earth.
Barbicane was the entrepreneur in Jules Verne's great novel From the Earth to the Moon and a Trip Around It (I wonder what would happen if I tried a title like that on one of my editors today) who purposed to fire an enormous artillery shell at the Moon with people in it and addressed the public -- not the government -- for financial support.
Earlier this year, I promised Boston (Ken Royce) that I would speak to you today about how to get people back into space again (and real people into space for the first time) and why it's absolutely essential that we do it as quickly as possible. I also said it was imperative that the effort be carried out by libertarians, or at least on libertarian terms, and that I would explain the why of that, as well.
I'll begin by confessing that I believe, in the words of Mr. Spock, that reaching for the stars is the "first best destiny" of humankind, and that's reason enough to do it. But I believe I've found another reason that might pique the interest of those unpiqued by the first.
Now if you've seen Armageddon, Deep Impact, or the horrible TV miniseries Asteroid, then a lot of my work is already done for me, in terms of introducing you to the concept of extinction level events, and showing all the wrong ways to go about saving our species from them.
But let me review briefly:
There is an abrupt discontinuity in the fossil record between the Cretaceous (the last of three dinosaur ages) and the Tertiary (when the age of mammals began). The break is worldwide. At some point about sixty-five million years ago, 75% of all the species on this planet -- in all environments, land, sea, and air -- died suddenly or were wiped out.
A few years ago it was considered radical to say it happened in a single century. Now some believe it happened in a single day, and more in a single month or year. Everyone professionally conversant with the topic understands that it will happen again. The question is when, not if. Some believe we're several million years overdue for such an event.
What kind of event? Once again, the movies and television have robbed me of the element of suspense. The date is 1980. Remember it well, for it marks the most significant moment in discovering who we are, and how we got here, since the publication of Darwin's Origin of Species. And it may tells us a great deal more about where we're headed.
In 1980, Nobel Prize-winning physicist Luis Alvarez and his boy Sherman -- I mean his son Walter, a geologist himself -- discovered a startling fact about that abrupt discontinuity in the fossil record. All around the world, the relatively thin barrier of clay separating fossils of the Cretaceous from those of the Tertiary contained traces the metal iridium vastly in excess of those found anywhere else on Earth, but consistent with a meteorite or asteroid about six miles in diameter.
Today, it's believed the object fell on the north shore of the present day Yucatan peninsula near the town of Chicxulub. It left a crater more than 100 miles wide. It struck with sufficient force that the resulting shockwave bulged the Earth's crust on the opposite side of the world, and opened up a giant volcano, adding to the original disaster.
The object struck at a south-north angle, showering North America with the worst of the debris, probably killing everything that could be killed in a matter of seconds. But carbon -- charcoal -- present in the iridium layer suggests that it also set off forest and grass fires all around the world, smothering the Earth with dense smoke and steam, shutting out the light, stifling breath, eventually killing dinosaurs, flying reptiles, swimming reptiles (probably by changing the chemistry of the ocean), and many more animals and plants everywhere. As I said, three quarters of all living things died, probably just in a matter of days.
The ironic thing is that all of this is good news. If it hadn't happened, we wouldn't be here. Maybe a highly-evolved dinosaur might be speaking to a group of other sapient dinosaurs on the significance of the Permian-Triassic mass extinction that allowed them to take over from the reptiles. If so, he'd say the same thing I'm about to say to you.
The important fact about the K-T event (as it's called because sombody's misspelling "Cretaceous) and the P-T event that preceded it by 185 million years, is that they weren't unique. Between six and 10 such mass extinctions have occurred in Earth's prehistory, at a rate that suggests we're about 15 million years overdue for another. It might be a million years from now, or ten million -- or it might be tomorrow.
At this point in history we have no way of knowing or of doing anything about it, Bruce Willis and Robert Duvall to the contrary notwithstanding. If a rock as big as the K-T asteroid hits us, the human race, completely helpless to defend itself, will be wiped out forever.
I suggest that that's ridiculous, and we should change it.
And before this goes a paragraph further, I am not proposing that we spend a penny of tax money on it, of getting the state to do it, or even some existing corporation which would certainly be as bad. Environmentalists are always screaming "Save the Earth". In the context they mean, Earth doesn't need it. Earth could need saving in an altogether different context someday, This is my plan to accomplish it.
Let me say again, I am not proposing any government program or exercise of the New World Order. I'm not suggesting that we require a corporation or combination of corporations to deal with the problem. In many ways -- especially where sticking up for individual liberty and the Bill of Rights is concerned -- corporations have been as bad as or worse than the government. Speaking of domed Lunar or Martian colonies, Freeman Dyson once said, "I wouldn't want to live anywhere that a Richard Nixon could turn off the air." Personally, I wouldn't want to live where Bill Gates -- who has demonstrated as much regard for the Bill of Rights as Bill Clinton -- can turn off the air, either.
In some respects, I don't know what I'm proposing -- maybe a new culture -- but I know it must consist of three parts if it's to work. I also know that we can't wait until we only have weeks or months to act, as they did in Armageddon and Deep Impact. Years would be nice -- so that whatever we do, we don't have to do much to avert the disaster -- and decades would be even better (if less romantic and exciting).
To begin with, there must be an observatory on the side of the Moon that permanently faces away from the Earth, so that it will be shielded from the light "pollution" and radio noise civilization generates. This observatory must be manned, because the human eye and human brain are still the best astronomical instruments we possess. It should have a huge wide-field optical telescope, and an even huger radio array, capable of active radar "pinging" of objects in the Solar System.
We also need a companion observatory in the Lagrange position on the opposite side of Earth from the Moon, to act as a second "eye", adding half a million miles of parallax to the Lunar observations, and therefore an immediate 3D view of what's happening Out There. This platform wouldn't have 2000 miles of granite shielding, and it needn't be manned (although, like chicken soup, it couldn't hurt). But it would be a space station with a purpose, instead of the useless piece of public relations junk that NASA's trying to build with Third World "help".
It makes me wonder: didn't anybody ever tell these hapless morons what Willy Ley and Hermann Oberth knew in the 1930s, that a proper space station is shaped like a doughnut (see 2001) and spins so that there's a bit of "gravity" inside? That way, your bones and muscles and immune system don't go away, and women's fallopian tubes work correctly.
But I digress.
Looking -- and at an extremely great distance at that -- is not enough. Three quarters of the rocks that could send us to Dinosaur Heaven have extremely low albedos -- are very dark. And according to the astronomy professor in whose classroom I gave the earliest version of this lecture, most of the rocks that pose a danger to our world are not in the plane of the ecliptic with most of the planets, but in high-inclination orbits coming at us out of the north and south polar skies.
Remember that the dinosaur killer struck the Yucutan, spraying molten death up onto North America clear to the Northern Territories. That means that we have a full 360-degree sphere --- a whole hell of a lot of sky -- to watch, just a few tiny fractions of a degree at a time.
So the second essential part this undertaking must involve "forward observers" who will eventually become "asteroid-killers", too.
I'm talking about hundreds, thousands, of little ships -- a "Space Patrol", if you will, hunting rocks instead of alien villains -- that would swarm through the system alert for potentially Earth-murdering asteroids or meteoroids (that's what they call the ones that haven't entered the atmosphere yet) and watching long enough to calculate whether, a year from now or 10 years from now, they might strike the Earth.
Now it's important -- just as important as preventing another mass extinction -- that the Space Patrol not be military, or governmental in nature. The power to divert an asteroid away from the Earth is the power to divert an asteroid toward the Earth. As the 20th century, with its 200 million government murders demonstrates, it's a power best kept out of government hands -- otherwise, we might as well give up and let ourselves be wiped out. It would be a cleaner death than they suffered at Buchenwald, the Cambodian killing fields, or Mount Carmel.
Incidentally, this precaution apparently works both ways. Victor Koman, author of Kings of the High Frontier believes -- and I agree with him -- that NASA's unwritten mission is to keep ordinary private individuals out of space. The question -- beyond the state's simple and insane desire to control everything and everyone -- was always why.
But it occurred to me when I first prepared this talk that we've always known why -- those of us who read Heinlein's The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, that is. Somebody at NASA (or more likely the CIA or NSA) read it, too, and doesn't want ordinary private individuals dropping rocks on them the way Mike and Mannie did during the Lunar Revolution.
But sooner or later somebody's going to have to go out there and do the job, find those dangerous rocks, and do something interesting with them. They'd be paid a bounty for discovering and diverting lethal objects, and they would possess the mineral rights to those containing valuable metals or substances that would sustain their lives.
I believe that's a job for the good old fashioned nuclear family, owning and operating their own spacecraft, plying the lanes of space, raising their kids to do the same, meeting now and again with other families to exchange trade goods, recipes, and marriageable sons and daughters. There are hundreds of thousands of families in America today who would find this a good, useful life and be eager to take it up.
But what would be in it for them?
The first step is to know the "enemy".
Astrophysically speaking, there are four kinds of asteroids.
The first kind are the Earth orbit-crossing or Apollo types, and the Earth orbit-grazing, or Amor types. These two types of asteroids are potentially the most consequential for the human species. They're surely the most practical reason to get back into space "for the first time".
The second kind are the so-called Trojan asteroids, named not for safe sex, but for the "heroes" in Homer's Iliad, because astronomers ran out of names for Greek and Roman gods. I don't really understand the physics of it, but there are known clusters of these silly rocks floating in the orbit of Jupiter, 180 degrees from it, both coming and going away. There are also suspected "Trojans" in the orbits of Earth and Mars, and there should be in the orbits of the other gas giants, too.
The third kind are part of the debris found in an area known as the Kuiper Belt, the Oort Cloud, or the Cometary Halo -- a great Unknown lying beyond the Solar System, outside the orbits of Neptune and Pluto. Some astronomers believe there are rocks out there as big as Earth. They detect perturbations in the orbits of the outer planets caused by a tenth planet we can't see which some call "Planet X". Halley's and the other comets come from here, and if we ever explore this region, we'll be a respectable fraction of the way to the nearest stars.
The fourth kind of asteroid comes from my favorite place to think about, the Asteroid Belt, a big, flat, rock-studded whirling disk kind of like Saturn's rings, circling the sun between the orbits of Mars and Jupiter, occupying space from 2.1 astronomical units (that's 2.1 times 93,000,000 miles, the distance from the Earth to the sun) to 3.3 astronomic units. Astrophysicists say there are only enough asteroids to make up about 10% of the mass of the Moon. Others think there may be some reasons to doubt those calculations, that I won't go into here.
The main thing to know about the belt asteroids is that there are 44,000 known, and probably a million of them altogether, ranging in size from coarse gravel to an approximate average of a kilometer in diameter (something like the asteroid in The Little Prince). But the second-largest, Pallas, has the same surface area as the Four Corners States: Colorado, Utah, New Mexico, and Arizona, with about a quarter of Wyoming thrown in for good measure. The largest, Ceres, has the same surface area as the subcontinent of India. These larger bodies could -- and should -- become the primary focus of 21st century human effort.
But I was going to discuss "what's in it" for our asteroid-hunting families.
Geologically speaking, there are also four types of asteroids (skipping a few rare and essentially useless categories I won't go into).
The first type are the stony asteroids, silicates, mostly thought to be basalt, the type of dense, heavy rocks found on Earth's ocean floors.
The second type are called "chondrites", another kind of mineral also found in great abundance on Earth, and I'll discuss them in a few moments in connection with another type called "carbonaceous chondrites".
The third type are what most folks think of if you mention meteors and asteroids, the metallics, mostly a nickle-iron amalgam that would make very good knives (and probably has in the past, even if you don't believe the legend of James Bowie) but with respectable amounts of silver, gold, platinum, palladium, and iridium. It was this last metal, you'll recall, that gave away the secret of the K-T extinction event.
Remember the guy who came up to Dustin Hoffman in The Graduate and whispered "plastics" as the key to wealth in that part of the 20th century? Okay, remember I mentioned palladium as the key to wealth in the 21st, and that it's been said that in an ordinary metal asteroid only a mile in diameter there's more gold than has ever been mined on Earth.
That's how our spacefaring families will get rich. But the fourth kind of asteroid -- carbonaceous chondrites -- are how they'll stay alive.
Seventy-five percent of the Belt asteroids (50% of the asteroids at the inner edge of the Belt, and 95% at the outer edge) are carbonaceous chondrites, basically the mineral olivine, of which the major portion of the Earth's crust is composed, plus some carbon -- some very special carbon. (Olivine without the carbon, what ordinary non-carbonaceous chondrites are made of, is magnesium silicate plus iron.)
Carbonaceous chondrite has been described (by me, in Pallas) as being "the color and texture of slightly overdone chocolate chip cookie". Most importantly for our spacegoing families and would-be asteroid colonists, they are either 6 to 10% or 11 to 20% water, depending on who's talking. In either case, that's a hell of a lot of water.
I recall a recent TV documentary in which a helicopter flies over a pathetic little lake the size of Fort Collins' Horsetooth Reservoir, saying "Yippee, that's how much water we've discovred there is on the Moon!"
Consider Pallas, the asteroid I know most about, a gigantic carbonceous chondrite with the same surface area as the Four Corners states:
[DRAW TIC-TAC-TOE BOARD, POINT TO MIDDLE SQUARE]
This much of Pallas is water.
As a percentage by weight, the average carbonaceous chondrite contains: Carbon, 2.0%; Metal, 1.8%; Nitrogen, 0.2%; Silicates, 83.0%; and Water (conservatively), 11.0%. At most, as I say, it can be 20% water and contain as much as 4% carbon. Other elements will vary as well.
It's almost as if the asteroids were humanity's ultimate reward for having evolved into sapience. And there's even better news. In addition to abundant water, what makes carbonaceous chondrites carbonaceous is that they contain around 5% of a substance called kerogen.
Kerogen is the waxy substance that makes ordinary shale into oil shale.
Again, in terms of percentage by weight kerogen contains: Carbon, 77.5%; Hydrogen, 7.5%; Nitrogen, 1.5%; Oxygen, 12.0%; and Sulfur, 1.5%. Any civilization that can't survive -- and flourish -- among the riches offered by the asteroids doesn't deserve to survive or exist at all.
And it's a good thing that living will be easy in the asteroids, because the third leg of extinction prevention depends on it in two ways.
Even movies that make as many mistakes as Armageddon and Deep Impact get one point straight. Many asteroids that pose a danger to us are actually fragile. They're "accretion bodies", globs of smaller rocks held together by mutual gravity. Now as forces in the universe go, gravity is feeble. It takes a ball of rock 8,000 miles in diameter to keep you in your place, and, tiny creature that you are, you can still jump clear of that ball of rock for a moment. My figure skating daughter strives to jump clear long enough to rotate three or four times.
What this fragility means, of course, is that we can't divert a killer asteroid by setting an explosion off on or near its surface. I have doubts about setting off explosions deep inside the asteroids, too. It comes to a choice between being shot with a single slug from an elephant rifle or a column of lethal pellets from a shotgun. As Mr. Spock also said, "a difference that makes no difference is no difference."
A cure for this problem might be to wrap chain-link fencing around the asteroid and haul it in a useful direction using engines of the nuclear "Nerva" variety in development since the 1950s. But the real point is that we have to find "safe and effective" methods of dealing with all kinds of incoming rocks, and the place to do that is the Asteroid Belt where all kinds of rocks can be found to experiment with.
Establishing Asteroid Belt research stations on at least a couple of the larger asteroids like Ceres and Pallas represents the third leg of extinction prevention. I chose Pallas for my novel of the same name because a slight eccentricity in its orbit carries it through almost all of the Asteroid Belt, providing access to a wide variety of different kinds of bodies and to the raw materials that they're made of.
I chose asteroids to write about in the first place -- long before I was aware of the danger some of them present -- because I've always thought it was silly to climb, at great expense and effort, out of a deep gravity well (escaping from Earth is often compared to climbing a mountain 7000 miles tall), only to make yourself a captive again in a place where the gravity mountain's "only" three or four thousand miles tall.
I'd much rather go someplace where landing is the same as docking. The escape velocity of Ceres is 900 miles per hour (compared to 18,000 on Earth) and from any of the smaller asteroids, you can practically sneeze yourself into orbit. On the Ceres I wrote about in The Venus Belt, superhighways are built upside-down. You drive up a ramp that flips you over so you won't accidentally drive right off the little planet.
It's important that we make something more of the Belt asteroids than mere research bases. They represent the easiest way to get all of our eggs, evolutionarily speaking, out of one basket. Even if Earth is struck by a killer asteroid, our species could carry on, survive, prosper, and flourish. But humans need to populate the asteroids in enormous numbers, because a species requires genetic diversity to survive.
Robert Zubrin's The Case for Mars lays out a plan for sending cautious missions to that planet, relying on chemicals in the Martian atmosphere to manufacture fuel onsite for the return trip. Kim Stanley Robinson writes of "terraforming" Mars, gradually converting it into an Earthlike environment over a period of hundreds or thousands of years.
It's a great big planet, and these things take time.
My Ceres and Pallas were terraformed in a considerably shorter time, at a considerably lower expense. Polar craters were chosen as spaceports or construction bases, or, lacking craters conveniently located at the poles, the attitude of the asteroid was changed with nuclear explosives (these rocks are big enough to take it) or fusion plasma drives, to put convenient craters at the poles. At the same time, the natural rotational period was altered from 6-12 hours to 24 hours.
Next, "smart" plastic, fabricated onsite -- from kerogen -- was wrapped around the asteroid and welded into a solid piece by hundreds of construction teams on the surface. Steel cables, anchored at the poles along the crater rims held the plastic canopy down. The insides of the polar craters were to be be left in vacuum, used as spaceports, with airlock tunnels bored through the ring-mountain around the crater.
Meanwhile, special bioengineered microbes were injected beneath the plastic in two stages. The first microbes would quickly create a "reducing" atmosphere -- hydrogen, ammonia, methane -- to inflate the plastic canopy, now straining against the steel mesh anchored at the poles.
Then a second microbe was introduced to kill the first, turning its "biomass" into topsoil, and creating a breathable oxygen-nitrogen atmosphere. The plastic contained the atmosphere and controlled the weather. It was also self-healing (to repair meteorite and other damage). Giant mylar reflectors in orbit provided extra light and heat.
The whole process was -- and someday will be -- vastly easier, faster, and cheaper than trying to turn a desert planet into another Earth.
Okay, we've built a Lunar observatory and its Lagrange companion, we've launched thousands of little family spaceships to police -- and farm -- the heavens, we've built research stations and eventually colonies on terraformed asteroids the size of India and the American West.
The Earth and the future of humanity are secure.
Now what was that, again, about palladium?
Well, I hope you'll all remember, 20 years from now, when I said something that may seem absolutely ridiculous to you now. Twenty years ago, in one of my earliest novels, I predicted that the Soviet Union would collapse pretty soon, and my editor at Random House, a Soviet affairs "expert" laughed at me and called my prediction "wishful thinking".
I've predicted other things: digital watches, laptop computers, and the internet (I said "predicted", not "invented") as we know it today.
The 20th century can properly be called the Age of Petroleum, for it's oil that's gotten us where we are today. I have a friend in Los Angeles who inhales the smog when he gets up every day and says, "I love the smell of gas fumes in the morning. It reminds me of -- civilization."
The 21st century will be the Age of Palladium, for palladium is what's at the heart of the most viciously suppressed technology in history, a technology that gores every governmental and industrial ox on the planet. But it can't be suppressed among the asteroids -- Freeeman Dyson also said that once we get out there, "the IRS will never find us" and from there it will spread back unstoppably to Earth.
Unless it breaks out sooner than that.
Laugh now, but remember the prediction and who made it and when. Because palladium, as rare a metal on Earth as iridium, is abundant among the nickel-iron asteroids, and is the essential catalyst to cold fusion.
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