A veteran science reporter proposes extraterrestrial settlement as the raison d’etre for the space program.
Burrows (Journalism/NYU; By Any Means Necessary, 2001, etc.) opens with a fictional scenario of a meteor cluster striking Earth, resulting in widespread destruction topped off by a nuclear war between Asian powers that interpret the impacts as an enemy attack. Large meteor and comet impacts occur periodically, he notes; one quite likely caused the extinction of dinosaurs 65 million years ago. Although a SpaceWatch program is already in place, looking for large Near Earth Objects (NEOs) whose orbits make them candidates to strike the planet, Burrows points out that there is no active plan to divert one on course to strike Earth. Nuking it as it approaches (the solution offered in the movie Armageddon) would merely spread the impact over a wider area. The only strategy with a long-term chance of preserving civilization, the author argues, is removing a significant human population from the target area, i.e., taking them off-planet. Space advocates have been considering this idea since the days of Russian rocket pioneer Tsilokovsky, and Gerard O’Neill, founder of the Space Studies Institute at Princeton, did extensive research in the 1970s on building large space stations as human habitats. But a simpler strategy, Burrows believes, is to build permanent bases on the moon, where at least some raw materials are already available. He has no illusions that NASA is up to the job, presenting a scathing summary of how political expediency sapped the agency’s momentum after Apollo and resulted in a shuttle program that primarily benefits the aerospace industry, which maintains and supplies the aging vehicles. Meanwhile, China has announced its own moon program. Burrows concludes with a plea for the establishment of a permanent international lunar colony, large enough to preserve a significant human population—and the records of our civilization.
Convincing and impassioned.