28 November 2021

  In a previous essay, I compared the imminent destruction of Earth by an asteroid - as depicted in science-fiction movies - to how the world is responding to the equally disastrous effects of real-life climate change. It was an “apples and oranges” comparison, and might have left the impression with some of my readers that we would react more appropriately to a real-life asteroid than we are reacting to real-life climate disaster. I wonder.

   Given today’s news and circumstances, this is how I imagine the reaction would be to a real asteroid on a trajectory to hit Earth a deadly blow.


YEAR ONE. Mike, an independent astronomer, noted something peculiar. After a few weeks of observation, he happened to mention it to a friend working at NOAA.[1]

   “By the way, Jack,” he said, over lunch, “I think we’re about to be destroyed by an asteroid.”

   “That’s tough,” replied Jack. “How much time do I have to complete my bucket list?”

   “I would start on it now, if I were you.”

   The weatherman looked more attentively at the astronomer, searching for a smirk or other “tell.” He didn’t see any. “You’re not being entirely facetious, I take it?”

   “I wish I was. I’ve been watching this object – an asteroid, I think – for some time, and it doesn’t change. I’ve only done rough calculations so far, but it really looks like it could be headed our way.”

   “Our way?”

   “Well, obviously, we’re talking about a long way off, but yes, there does seem to be movement along a trajectory that – if it kept coming – would take it pretty near Earth.”

   They both ate in silence for a few moments. “So, what do we do about it? Should we tell someone?” asked Jack.

   “I don’t know who we’d tell, or what we’d tell them at this point. I’ve been reaching out to astronomers in other parts of the world, getting  their ideas on what we’ve got. It would be good if you could get some of your folks involved.”

   Jack paused. “Well, unofficially, I could get the word out. This is no time to even suggest any kind of official investigation.”

   “I can see that. Well, do what you can. Let’s keep in touch, ‘unofficially’.”


   Through the rest of the year, Mike continued to watch the “asteroid.” He kept up regular conversations with other astronomers, and they began to pool their information. Jack enlisted a few NOAA folks to “unofficially” look into the situation; a series of surreptitious discussions followed.

   Elsewhere, it was business as usual.


YEAR TWO. Jack got a call on his home phone. He didn’t recognize the number.

   “How are you doing with your bucket list?” asked the caller.

   “Bucket list?” Then, he remembered. “Mike! I assume this isn’t a call just to shoot the breeze.”

   “I wish it was, but no; our ‘issue’ has become a ‘problem,’ and potentially a very serious one. The ‘asteroid’ is indeed an asteroid, and it is headed our way.”

   “Our way? Like, toward Earth, or at Earth?”

   “The latter. I’ve been sharing notes and ideas with astronomers worldwide. We all agree that this is a real threat, and we think it’s time to tell the governments.”

   “Governments? You mean, like our current Administration? If so, things are a little confused around here, right now. I’m not sure we’d get very far, or at least not very far in the right direction.”

   There was a short silence. “You mean, because of the President?”

  “That’s exactly what I mean. You know, we lost about half our staff of meteorologists, statisticians, and analysts because we tried to correct him when he told the world last September that Hurricane Dorian was going someplace it wasn’t.”

   “But you do realize that we could be talking annihilation?”

   “I do realize that, but I also realize that he said last November that he was pulling us out of the Paris climate agreement because climate change is either a fairytale or a Liberal plot, and the United States is not going to go along with the abettors. He’ll see  this as another science-fiction plot to ruin the United States or discredit him.”

   “Regardless, this can’t wait.”

  Phone silence. Finally, Jack responded. “Yes, I know. I’ll talk to our new NOAA chief. But remember, he’s appointed by the President, and worships him through and through. I may not get anything more from him than a ticket out of government service.”

   “It’s worth a try.”

   “Easy for you to say.”


   A week or so later, Jack did get the administrator to meet with him for a few minutes.

   “Shit!” said the administrator. “Are you really here telling me that the world is about to be destroyed by a rock from outer space? I think I saw this movie a few years ago. Are you another one of those end-of-the-world nuts?”

   “Improbable as it sounds, sir, scientists all over the world are agreeing it’s a real threat.”

   “Goddam eggheads! We didn’t buy their global warming crap, so they’re trying something new. Are any of them – besides you – from my department?”

   “No, these are all independent scientists. I’m just passing on what I was told. It sounds credible to me.”

   “Well, I’m not buying it, and I know the Boss won’t. You were stupid to bring it up with me.”

   “Hey, I’m just the messenger here!”

   “And a messenger should be smart enough to know what messages not to deliver.” He considered for a moment. “But, let’s do this. You prepare a one-page summary for me – no more than two paragraphs, and no graphs, charts, or mathematical formulas – and give it to me, today. I’ll decide what to do with it. In the meantime, you might practice clearing out your desk. Just in case.”


   Later that day, Jack presented his “executive summary” to the administrator, and watched him put it in a desk drawer without looking at it. No hope there, it was clear, but at least he hadn’t been fired - yet.

   A week or so later, the NOAA administrator was meeting with one of the President’s military overseers. When the asteroid was mentioned, the military man expressed some interest, and asked for more details. The administrator hadn’t taken in many specifics.

   “Is this guy still around, or did you fire his ass?”

   “I think he still has a desk. Why do you ask?”

   “I just had an idea,” replied the military man.


   He found Jack at his desk in an office otherwise unpopulated. Without preamble, he said, “Your boss says you think a comet is going to hit us.”

   Jack was surprised that the administrator even remembered they had talked. “Not a comet; an asteroid.”

   “Okay; asteroid. And you really believe this?”

   “Well, I haven’t done a lot of the research myself, but a lot of top-notch scientists have studied it, and they sincerely believe it.”

   “So, saying that it’s true, how do you stop it?”

  “We never have stopped one, so it’s all theoretical. But – theoretically – we could try to blow it apart, maybe with a nuclear bomb. More likely, and probably safer, we could knock it off its course by hitting it with something, or trying to build up some sort of gravitational force against it.”

  “Yeah, I saw that movie, where Bruce Willis dies setting off a nuclear blast.[2] But say we couldn’t divert it completely away from Earth; could we just move it enough to let it hit where we wanted it to hit? Like Moscow, for instance?”

   “Target it, you mean? You know, we’re not talking about an atomic blast like Hiroshima. We’re talking about a much greater impact.”

   “Greater, huh? Maybe we could plan it to take out both Russia and China. Wouldn’t that go a long way toward making America great again!”

   “Look, I don’t think you’re understanding the real issue. This particular asteroid is so big that if it hits anywhere on Earth, it will wipe us all out!” Some scientists think that it was just this kind of event that wiped out all the dinosaurs millions of years ago.”

   ‘Yeah, but you don’t know that. You don’t know anything that happened millions of years ago. Did anybody ever discover one dinosaur under a piece of space rock?”

   “But that’s not how they were killed… “

   “What I hate about you scientific types is that you never look at the whole picture. You get together, put together some mathematical formulas, then tell us what will probably happen. Those of us in the Real World don’t look at just the probabilities; we think about the possibilities!”

   “In this case, I think… “

   “Here’s what I think. If I can see the possibilities of using this possible comet strike to our advantage, then some other countries will probably start to see the implications, also. I think you better stop talking to outsiders about this; it could have national security implications. Anything you know, keep it to yourself and to the Administration from now on.”


   As the year moved toward its close, the President officially withdrew the United States from the Paris climate change negotiations. With the U. S. as a climate change denier, rather than a leader in addressing the problem, worldwide efforts faltered. The President lost reelection in the same month. That brought some hope of improved U. S. leadership in the world, but it would likely be a long time coming.

   The world was reeling from the effects of a pandemic that had claimed nearly five million lives. Individual countries were spending all their energies trying to control the disease, and at the same time dealing with the economic and social costs associated with quarantines and lockdowns. No government cared to raise the asteroid issue, although rumors were spreading through the world community at large. Interestingly – and probably because of its science-fictiony implications – more people seemed concerned about the possible collision than they had about the certainty of death and disruption from climate change.


YEAR THREE. The world continued in turmoil, with the pandemic still in full force worldwide. Many lockdowns of business and travel - meant to slow the spread of the virus - were met with resistance, riots and civil disobedience. The development of effective vaccines gave some respite, but many people refused the shots, curiously leaving themselves and their families vulnerable to the disease, and also keeping the virus actively spreading in many populations.

   Civil unrest was high for other reasons, as well. The United States voters had managed to oust a (probably insane) President, but he and his party refused to admit defeat. Lawsuit followed lawsuit as they attempted unsuccessfully to negate the election results. When that failed, they enlisted the support of Right-wing militias to try to take over the Government by force.

   Despite all this confusion, the new Administration was managing to reverse the most serious blunders of the previous four years, and had even managed – in a seriously split Congress! – to pass some important legislation. Still, dissatisfaction was strong, and the new President’s polling numbers continued to slip toward all-time lows.

   The U. S. re-entered the climate change talks, attended the international meeting, and made new pledges to actively reduce greenhouse gases. Most climate experts felt that the commitments (of the U. S. and other key nations) were inadequate, and had an implementation probability somewhere between unlikely and “never going to happen.” To reinforce that belief, within a week of returning from the climate talks, the Administration opened vast areas of Alaska and the Gulf of Mexico to new oil and gas leasing.[3] There were marches and protests by young people (the generations that would really begin to feel the worst of climate change). The general public seemed unmoved, worldwide polls still indicating that climate change was far down on the list of things to be worried about – behind “the economy,” health care, jobs, national security, and of course the Pandemic.


    Meanwhile, the asteroid continued on its path toward Earth. Although most world governments still remained silent about it, word that leaked to the public spread rapidly via “social media.” The usual misinformation, denials, worries and near panics proliferated, as did a thousand different memes. No one tried to clarify. Coincidentally, the U. S. launched a spaceship meant to strike an asteroid[4] to see if it could be knocked out of its orbit. NASA[5] was vague on details, and the British and European presses seemed to know more about it than the American news media. The test seemed to have something to do with the future work of the “space patrol,” the new branch of the American military whose job it will be to protect the Galaxy.[6]


YEAR FOUR. The asteroid was now visible to any amateur with a good telescope, as its course remained unaltered. In the United States, there was little official recognition of it,  or of climate change, or even the pandemic (gaining momentum, once again, as anti-vaccination protests proliferated). It was mid-term election year and, despite what had been labeled as “unprecedented” popular legislation, polls on both the President and Legislature continued to slide. All attention in Washington was focused on who would be the winners and losers in November.

   Other than the people who were truly panicked by the asteroid, most of the rhetoric about it was political. In the United States, claims were made that the Administration was using the threat of the asteroid to stay in power. (If you really thought about it, that was a pretty hollow argument, considering the Administration was barely acknowledging it existed.) Depending on who you asked, the whole asteroid business was a hoax, an overrated scare tactic, or it was being programmed by China (or maybe Russia) to specifically hit America.

   Asteroids do not show a “tail,” like comets or meteors (“shooting stars”), so generally go unnoticed without telescopes. However, under certain conditions, they can “shine” from  reflections of the Sun. Therefore, on one mid-summer night, it was startling to see a new “star” in the sky, one much brighter and apparently much larger than any other. It proved strange enough to jolt the Administration out of their election fixation, and NASA and the military were charged with looking into the situation. At the same time, a television evangelist suggested that this new “star” could be the sign that Christendom had been long awaiting – the return of Jesus, and the ensuing Rapture. That idea spread rapidly around the world, and soon lost any modifiers like “maybe,” “suggestive of,” or “possibly.” Jesus was coming! Large crowds gathered every night to see this manifestation of salvation.

   By September, the Administration decided that the asteroid was worth worrying about. They also decided that the worry was immediate and extreme and – just maybe – too late. The space ship launched the previous year had just reached its target, and had scored a direct hit. However, what that meant probably wouldn’t be known until after a year or so of analysis of the data. After discussions with world leaders, it was decided to immediately try diverting the threatening asteroid.

   The President pulled no punches in his address to the Nation: we are in serious trouble, and the efforts we are taking may not be enough to save us. He outlined what they intended to do. No, there was no place to hide; no provisions to store up; no final business to take care of. Either the threat was averted, or it wasn’t.

   With similar messages coming from other leaders, most of the world population went numb. Few people had never experienced anything even close to hopelessness, and there was no adequate reaction – except by one faction. Stirred by conspiracy theorists and “social media,” the belief quickly took hold that the plan to shoot down “the star” was really a liberal or Deep State plot to stop Jesus from returning. Daily vigils occurred at government offices in all parts of the country, with “Stop the Jesus Killers!” placards competing for prominence with “Rocket Ships Can’t Stop the Rapture!”. White supremacists took advantage of the gatherings to spread the message that it wasn’t just liberals who were scheming, but all the other un-American, un-Christian immigrants were in the conspiracy, as well. Signs reminiscent of Dr. Carl Macintire’s Vietnam slogan[7] were evident – “Kill a Lefty for Christ” – and many wore “MACA” hats – “Make American Christian, Again.”

   Preparing for the asteroid attack launch was completed in far less time than any previous space shot, raising further suspicions that the Government had been planning something for a lot longer than was being publicly acknowledged. The shot occurred in October to even greater public protest, and armed attempts were made to enter the launch area and NASA control sites. Members of Congress received threatening and obscene phone calls, and crosses were burned on the lawns of key administrators.

   Despite everything, the November mid-term elections took place. The Administration’s party lost control of both houses of Congress.

   The asteroid continued Earthward.


YEAR FIVE……………..


[1] National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration

[2] The movie was called “Armageddon.” The strategy worked (in the movies).

[3] These were areas that the new President had closed, but a Federal judge said he couldn’t do it. The President reversed himself without apparent demur, suggesting either (1) the Administration was extremely law-abiding, or (2) their belief was weak that climate change was a serious issue.

[4] Not the one hurdling towards Earth.

[5] National Aeronautics and Space Administration

[6] It isn’t clear from what.

[7] “Kill a Commie for Christ”

© Sanford Wilbur 2021