“The Survival Imperative: Using Space to Protect Earth”

“The Survival Imperative: Using Space to Protect Earth” by Burrows, William E.

Published in 2006 by Forge Books (a Tom Doherty Associates press, like Tor Books), it weighs in at 350 pages of content plus several appendices. No errors noted.

Mr. Burrows, a professor of Journalism at NYU, is one of the better known chroniclers of the space age, and his book “This New Ocean” is a particularly well known title. In “The Survival Imperative”, Mr. Burrows picks up on the growing theme of “Space for the benefit of Earth”, and lays out a very compelling case for why our efforts to develop the space frontier are not merely a luxury, but rather a necessity if we value the continuity of our civilization into the indefinite future.

In the first chapter, “Hell on Earth”, Mr. Burrows lays out the entirely plausible scenario of a ‘string of pearls’ cometary impactor laying a line of destruction from the Indian subcontinent to the Great Lakes in North America. The scenario is that the impactor is a ‘blindsider’ [my term], coming up out of the Sun’s gravity well where our telescopes can’t espy them and at a speed that makes the F=ma formula not our friend. In the aftermath, the Indian subcontinent becomes a nuclear inferno, 3.5 million people die in NYC, and the chaos that ensues as social order breaks down and a cloud of impact debris and radioactive fallout begins to spread over the planet. It is not a fun chapter, though Mr. Burrows lays it all out in a calm and journalistic manner. It’s not a ‘Doomsday scenario’ harangue, but more a documentation of what would occur. Nevertheless, the particularly sensitive in spirit might want to avoid that chapter.

In the next, “Let there be light”, the author explains how we already have most of the tools we need to start addressing these risks in an effort to mitigate them. (Only a fool believes that risk can be ‘eliminated’). ‘Light’, in this context is the light of knowledge, that wonderful human achievement that underlies our civilization and has provided us the means to create these tools. He also explores how the light of knowledge can be turned into a tool of darkness.

He continues on that theme in “Target Earth”, as he lays out the myriad self-inflicted ways in which humanity can do itself in, as well as how Mother Earth has her own particular indifference to our existence. This is another tough chapter, made worse by the fact that these are the things we do to ourselves. But he also starts laying out how we’ve started deploying space tools to help us address these risks.

In the next chapter, “The Once and Future Space Program”, the author walks us through a brief history of modern space, from Tsiolkovsky’s first realistic treatments on the subject to the modern mess that is NASA as an institution. In the next chapter, “A beehive called Earth”, he lays out the how we’ve developed our cislunar assets: the communications, reconnaissance, spy, TV, radio, GPS and other satellites, and how these assets have changed our lives. Next up is the people in “The Ultimate Frequent Flier Program” where Mr. Burrows explores some of the concepts that have been promulgated for people to go into space to stay. He ends by calling for a Planetary Protection Program as the overall mission and strategy for NASA’s efforts.

My favorite chapter is of course “A Treasure Chest on the Moon”. It is here that he lays out his case for an ARC on the Moon, an archive of our civilization, or better, a back-up hard drive of our knowledge. I saw a presentation of this by Mr. Burrows at an NSS-NYC meeting back in 2000 back before I left for ISU. Ever since I’ve been convinced of the merits of the idea, though I think the asteroid watch is a much more important idea and its that one that made it into my “25 Good Reasons to go to the Moon” (#14 – Neighborhood Watch”). It’s also the last chapter of the book, “The Guardians”. Here is where he makes his case that the only way we can ensure that our civilization doesn’t slip into animalistic barbarism in the event of catastrophe is to spread the pieces of our civilization around not just our planet, but also our Solar system. Part of that is providing tools for a better understanding of our home environment.

This is a book that should be required of our policymakers, and encouraged of our public figures. Someone should send a copy to Oprah. This book lays out a compelling need for, and a way to address, a program of protecting our home planet from threats both internal and external. It is not a ‘doom and gloom’ handbook, but rather a rational laying-out of what the current situation is in this regards. It’s actually optimistic in that he rightfully acknowledges that the United States can play a significant technical and leadership role in this project, though really it is a global project (and we haven’t necessarily been showing ourselves to be playing well in that regard). The author has done a lot of homework, as demonstrated in the extensive bibliography, and also includes some documents that have previously been sent to policymakers in an attempt to draw their attention to this important aspect of our existence on this planet.

This one gets a Full Moon rating.

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2 thoughts on ““The Survival Imperative: Using Space to Protect Earth”

  1. “In the aftermath, the Indian subcontinent becomes a nuclear inferno, 3.5 million people die in NYC, and the chaos that ensues as social order breaks down and a cloud of impact debris and radioactive fallout begins to spread over the planet. It is not a fun chapter, though ”

    Nuclear? I can understand a comet or asteroid impact releasing energy similar (in some cases far greater) to what would be released nuclear weaponry. But why would the debris be radioactive? Comets are mostly made out of light elements. I can’t see (to my immediate knowledge) why they would become radioactive.

    The assumption of social order breaking down after a shock always seems to comprise the majority of projected post-disaster chaos. But I think that’s a little too hard on people. Did social order break down after any of the numerous attacks on our country throughout history? Did it break down when terrible natural disasters struck? (Granted, NO, but besides that instance…) It seems to me to be a much rarer event than commonly assumed.

  2. qwerty182764,
    I didn’t say the comet was nuclear. Note the phrasing “In the aftermath, the Indian subcontinent -becomes- a nuclear inferno. thus, the nuclear effect is post-impact. That’s why the cloud is of “impact debris -and- radioactive fallout”. Not radioactive impact debris, but impact debris -and- nuclear fallout.

    I would suggest a quick review of the political tensions in the Indian Subcontinent, as well as how bad things almost became back in 2003 (IIRC).

    Or just read the book…

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