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July 1998
Volume 16, Number 7

Government and the Killer Asteroid
by Justin Raimondo

It was a news story to end all news stories-literally. The announcement that a giant asteroid was headed for the vicinity of the earth caused a momentary sensation. Dr. Brian G. Marsden, director of the Central Bureau of Astronomical Telegrams, informed the media that an asteroid would pass within 30,000 miles of earth on October 26, 2028-a Thursday-and that it could possibly score a direct hit.

The media firestorm that followed was even reflected in the New York Times. While the editors hedged their bets with a subhead that read "Estimate Tentative--Chance of Impact Seen as Slight," by the third paragraph, the story was already conjuring the fate of the dinosaurs.

The asteroid, about one mile in diameter, would have an impact that would inflict "devastating global effects, including tidal waves, continent-size fires and an eruption of dust that could cause global cooling and longterm disruption of agriculture." But the situation, according to Dr. Marsden, is not quite hopeless: as the Times paraphrased his remarks, the effect of such a collision, or even a close call, "would not necessarily be severe enough to wipe out the human race."

But close enough.

The most interesting and telling response was in the scientific community itself. Most scientists insisted they were not at all surprised. One calculated that, within an average human life span of sixty-seven years, there is a 1 in 5,000 chance of a major collision with some heavenly body.

"That's a pretty big chance," averred Dr. Tom Chrels of the Lunar and Planetary Laboratory at the University of Arizona, "when you think about it." Thats the bad news. But look at the bright side: "during the cold war," said Gehrels, "I used to hope that one of the hazardous asteroids would be spotted and that the discovery would unite America and the Soviet Union in a common effort to save the world. Even now we might see this Asteroid 1997 XF11 drawing people together."

Now that the cold war is over, the lack of a greater external Threat is crippling the governments style. It has a difficult time justifying continued massive expenditures on super-weapons such as "Star Wars" laser beams and other "defense" industry cash cows. For the scientific wing of the welfare-warfare state, the Killer Asteroid was a godsend. According to Marsden, in the year 2000, at the height of the millennialist fever, it will be back, "allowing us to improve measurements." And here is the rub: "we have plenty of time-thirty years, in fact-to improve our knowledge of this thing and take steps, if necessary."

These "steps" are the key to understanding this whole bizarre incident. Marsden and Edward Teller, the father of the hydrogen bomb and the model for Dr. Strangelove, called for nuclear detonations to throw the asteroid off course. On very short notice, other scientists came up with their own schemes to deflect the Killer Asteroid from its fatal trajectory.

Not everyone, however, was so gullible. Scientists at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, were checking the data, and by the next day the whole furor had been thoroughly debunked. The likelihood of a collision is effectively zero, said the JPL scientists. Furthermore, they continued, the Killer Asteroid will come no closer than 600,000 miles, more than twice as distant as the moon. Dr. Marsden was "crying wolf."

But Marsden was not interested in scientific accuracy: in fact, for someone who is warning the world of a catastrophe of such cosmic proportion, Marsden was unusually lighthearted. In describing his own reaction to such a momentous discovery, he says, "what delighted me was that its all thirty years from now-not next week or next year," he said happily. "Time is on our side in this one," he continued. "Thats why its such a wonderful illustration of the process."

The "process" Marsden refers to is the process of attracting tax dollars to astronomical projects, such as sky-watching, which have recently come under the budget axe. The Times quotes Marsden as saying that "we should be thankful we have this kind of notice," and goes on to note "if that sounds like a plug for the astronomers who perform the wholly thankless task of tracking asteroids and comets, well perhaps it is." The "side message" of the Killer Asteroid hysteria, Marsden admitted, was "send money!" because "this is all done on a shoestring."

It didn't take long for the politicians to line up at the pork barrel. Rep. Dana Rohrabacher, chairman of the space and aeronautics subcommittee, immediately posed the possibility that we might have to "launch an interceptor into space to deflect the asteroid away from the Earth." No doubt Rohrabacher, the Southern California Republican who used to call himself a libertarian, has high hopes the interceptor will be built in his district, which is heavily dependent on munitions manufacturers.

Just as Stalin enthroned the crank Lysenko and other pseudoscientists for ideological reasons, so the U.S. welfare-warfare state promotes disaster theories: global warming, global cooling, the end of the worlds oceans, the depletion of the ozone, to give a "scientific" foundation for a maze of government regulations and programs.

While Marsden is playing the star role in "Attack of the Killer Asteroid," he has the important backing of Teller, who concedes that there is little more than a one percent chance the asteroid would hit Earth, yet warns "I want to make it clear that if it does hit, it will be a terrible thing for all mankind."

But the idea that government is going to stop an asteroid when it hasn't been able to stop street muggings is preposterous. And what if an asteroid really did hit the earth? Would government really be able to handle the aftermath? Of course not. It would round up survivors and herd us into reeducation camps, while whacking those who violated price controls or tried to tend to their families instead of the nation. If one thing could make a giant asteroid attack worse, it would be putting the government in charge of managing the aftermath. It would be the total state.

While Newt Gingrichs Republican congress is particularly prone to extraterrestrial boondoggles-Gingrich was founder of the congressional "space caucus"-we would do well to look askance at the latest all-purpose Threat to Life as We Know It.


Justin Raimondo is author of Reclaiming the American Right.


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