Two Steps Forward
by Dr. Michael Martin Smith 

During this second week in February 2001, Humanity is clearly taking the next stage towards the further development of Life and civilization, in two apparently small but very significant steps. 

Over the long history of this planet Earth, there have been many invasions from Space - not, I hasten to add, by von Daniken's astronaut gods, nor yet by X File look-alikes, but by cosmic debris in the shape of meteorites and comets. Visitors to Arizona's meteor crater, and viewers of the movies "Deep Impact" and "Armageddon" will know that these invasions have been and can be spectacularly deadly. Indeed we now know that for all the guilt-ridden concern about Man's impact on the Environment, the ultimate threat to our civilization is waiting out in Space to fall upon us on some future day. 

For billions of years, Earth's inhabitants, be they primitive molluscs, dinosaurs, or Eocene mammals, have stood by, watched, and perished in the firestorms and climatic chaos following such invasions. Sometimes indeed new life has risen from the ashes of the old, and comets have been creative as well as destructive - the Hindus wisely embody Creation and Destruction in the same Janus headed god- Shiva/Kali.

On Feb 12. 2001, for the first time, the tables will be turned. If all goes according o plan, the robot emissary of Mankind - the Near Earth Asteroid Rendezvous spacecraft ( NEAR) will have completed a 12 months' survey in close-up of the enigmatic asteroid Eros 433, and will take the ultimate plunge with a soft landing on the surface of this cosmic wanderer. The intention is to learn something of the consistency and cohesiveness of this body - is it, for instance, a hard stony object or a collection of debris loosely cobbled together into a sponge-like "gravel pit"?

This is by no means a dry academic question of interest only to space scientists; ever since the spectacular fire-works display put on by Comet Shoemaker Levy 9 at Jupiter, astronomers at the Spaceguard Foundation (the very idea comes from the leading patron, English Sci-Fi writer and guru Sir Arthur C Clarke) have with growing success been working on Governments to support studies of the impact threat with a view, firstly, to finding and tracking likely objects, and secondly to learn ways of deflecting them. For the first time in history, a species has arisen on Earth which could prevent its own extinction by cosmic disaster. 

Many schemes for deflecting an asteroid have been put forward - the most immediately possible being a nuclear tipped rocket, sent to explode at an appropriate distance to nudge the object out of its collision path. However, success requires that the object be firm enough in structure to be repelled by such a blast without simply absorbing and diluting the shockwave - hence the vital importance of knowing the consistency. 

Thus if we are to prevent catastrophe for civilization in the future we must visit many different bodies on an economic and regular basis; Feb 12th's NEAR landing will be the first tentative step. 

If, as some observer suspect, many potential "visitors" are spongy in makeup - only more futuristic deflection methods assembled and directed from Space itself will suffice, since nuclear missiles will quite possibly fail; the bonus however is that spongy objects will most likely be much easier to mine for the exploitation of space industries; Japan for instance has already proposed a 40 year plan for building solar power stations in Space bringing non-polluting renewable energy to Earth's billions in major amounts.

The second major step for Man has been the addition of the aptly named "Destiny" lab to the growing International Space Station; apart from providing up to the minute research facilities for 16 nations in orbit, Destiny, as its name implies, is a next step towards the ultimate dream of space minded people - building a living human civilization off the planet, for eventual dispersal out into the Galaxy.

Before we can take further steps, for example in Lunar or Martian settlements, or in Island colonies in free Space living off solar energy and raw materials derived from asteroids and comets, there is much to be learned and developed. Much of this learning will change and improve practices here on Earth.

Expansion into Space will require understanding of biology, the physiology of bones, muscles and hearts, intensive food production , cultivation of greenhouse plants from seed to crop and second generation propagation , and economical recycling of air, water, wastes, and food as far as possible. 

Much of this will be done within the programmes of Astrobiology - a new multidisplinary approach to questions of the origin, evolution, and distribution of Life in the cosmos. Inevitably we will learn that Astrobiology concerns the future fate of such life - and Mind - as well as its origins! This of course will affect all thinking citizens - at last those who, through having children, have acquired a stake in a human future. 

For the ultimate insurance against the several life threatening scenarios revealed by science is the dispersal of Humankind into many habitats - we are on notice that keeping all our eggs in one planetary basket is a recipe for suicide. From now on, human extinction will become increasingly unnecessary! 

Many of today's changes are of historic significance; but, in the field of space development, our activities are ultimately of evolutionary and cosmic importance. Quite a thought, as you read of these events!

For those who fear the prospects for human growth and civilization, 2001 is providing some healthy omens. All we need is the Will to build a cosmic future...

Dr Michael Martin-Smith, author of "Salto nello Spazio"
and "Man Medicine and Space"

[MMS - TDF 2/2001 - 17/06/2001]