Planetary Defense and the Role of the Schweickart Prize

Our Human Relationship with the Fundamental Nature of the Universe

Life, from what we can see, is built into the basic design of the universe, and we humans, indeed Earthlife as a whole, are the evolutionary manifestation of this design in our local cosmic neighborhood. We are doubtless not the only manifestation of this evolutionary process, though we know of no other at the current time. Logically, however, this evolutionary process is repeated throughout the universe and we are simply the local variety.

To a large extent, we have been nurtured in this development process by planet Earth and its supportive environment. As Earthlife has evolved over several billion years, we humans have reached the stages of self-awareness, intelligence, consciousness, etc. We manifest curiosity. We have invented machines to enable us to explore and increase our knowledge of the universe itself. We have become a major, if not the dominant actor in our own evolution.

There are many analogies in our current situation to what we know of as the birthing process. We are growing rapidly within a confined environment. We are demanding more energy and material to support this growth, and we produce more and more waste as a byproduct of this growth. In biological reproduction these processes trigger the birthing process, thereby enabling the child to continue to grow and develop without excessive demands on the mother. We, I believe, have reached that point in our collective development; historically the moment of cosmic birth. I have little doubt that this process has, and will continue to occur in countless unique forms throughout the Universe.

On a personal note, the seeds of this awareness took hold as my good friends who flew on Apollo 8 looked back toward Earth while orbiting the Moon. It was, for me, a historic moment in the evolution of Earthlife. We have always been drawn to the stars, and now, in partnership with our machines we are on the verge of being born into the local cosmos, out of Mother Earth.

Simultaneously in the process of creating and developing this capability, we have come to recognize many challenges to realizing this evolutionary transition. We are still in the phase of placing increasing demands for growth, and waste processing, on the planet. These stresses are manifest in environmental, political, and social conflict. Some of these challenges are justly seen as existential. Some are human-made; some are natural. All will demand responsible collective action on the part of humanity if we are to emerge successfully through our cosmic birthing process.

One of the fascinating, natural, multi-dimensional challenges we face is that of asteroid and cometary collisions with Earth. I need not elaborate on the demise of the dinosaurs some 66 million years ago as an example of the power of these historic impacts. While the frequency of collisions of the size of the Chicxulub impact which wiped them out is extremely low (approximately once per 100 million years) other more frequent, albeit still powerful impacts threaten less robust targets such as modern civilization, the global economy, and regional or local life. Impacts with serious consequences remain a current threat and their occurrence is more a matter of when than whether. Unless that is, we intervene in this "cosmic shooting gallery". This is the challenge we currently refer to as planetary defense.

[Note: While the PD challenge is technically composed of both asteroid and comet impacts with Earth, asteroid impacts (of a serious size) are on the order of 100 times more frequent, and our technical capability to address them is sufficient to act on. Therefore the focus of the prize (at least for the time being) is addressed to asteroid impacts only.]

Asteroids are indeed fascinating objects. Scientifically they can and will tell us a great deal about the origins and formation of the solar system, and indeed of life itself. As a human exploration goal, there is little doubt that future men and women will dirty their spacesuits collecting fascinating samples. And perhaps most significant from the evolutionary perspective, is that future human development beyond the limits of Earth will be fueled by and built from asteroidal materials (most especially water!) In this sense, asteroids will doubtless play a seminal role in the future cosmic expansion of Earthlife.

Nevertheless unless we intervene in this cosmic game of roulette, we will be leaving our cosmic destiny to chance. Happily however it appears that our space technology has now developed to the point where we actually have the capability to prevent the most likely asteroid impacts. And it is highly likely that, over time, our nascent capability will grow to ultimately prevent both the largest asteroid impacts and cometary impacts as well. Indeed, in my view, it is our collective responsibility to bring this capability into being.

I would be remiss, however, were I not to state, even to emphasize, that the most difficult challenges ahead in this endeavor, are more likely to be geopolitical and social, than technical. Not that there are not substantial technical challenges to be addressed, but we're rather more clever about developing technology than we are in collectively addressing the conflicting interests of individuals, tribes, and nations. Implicit in, and inseparable from deflecting an asteroid headed for an impact with the planet is the (presumably) temporary shifting of impact risk to people (individuals, tribes, nations) not originally at risk in the process of eliminating the risk to everyone. In essence, the original impact point, during the process of deflection, is dragged across the surface of the planet (think "innocent" nations, cities, people) until it passes off the Earth entirely. The geopolitical challenges inherent in this process are immense. Asteroid impacts are intrinsically a planet-wide issue, and their solution requires collective, coordinated planetary action.

We are indeed individuals, and individually we have amazing power. At the same time, we are collections of people; collections of various sizes and forms. But at the existential scale, we are Earthlife, together. We will be born into the larger cosmos successfully, or not, in all likelihood depending on the degree to which we together address this, and other, existential challenges. Happily, PD is a natural cosmic hazard, and dealing with it collectively will probably be less challenging than dealing with other existential challenges of our own creation!

The Schweickart Prize was created to stimulate creative thinking, and ultimately action, in addressing this challenge to our future evolution. It is targeted toward those who will most shape our future, to graduate-level students and young professionals around the world, both technical and non-technical. To realize our destiny, to be successfully born into the cosmos, Earthlife will be required not only to be clever, and even wise but to realize, together, our collective responsibility.