The Big Picture
Ways to Mitigate or Prevent Very Bad Planet Earth Events
by John W. Young
Associate Director, Technical
NASA, Johnson Space Center
In the last 25 years of NASA exploration we have learned a lot
about our Earth's relation to the Solar System. In particular, we have
discovered that our place is dynamically evolving. This normal evolution
will certainly produce bad events on Earth for humans.
Historical Volcanic Activity:
Active volcanoes are very common events on
our Solar System satellites and planets. The Smithsonian Institute Global
Volcanism Program lists over 1500 Holocene volcanoes. Those were the
discovered volcanoes that have erupted on earth in the last 10,000 years.
As a former lunar field geologist I was able to see many of these volcanoes
on field trips in the United States in the '60s. In 1991, Mount Pinatubo
put 8 cubic kilometers of ash in the atmosphere. The worldwide temperature
temporarily lowered 1 degree F from 1991 to 1993. The geologic record shows
that volcanoes that produce 1000 cubic kilometers of ash or greater happen
about twice per 100,000 years on Earth. The last discovered was the volcano
Toba in Sumatra. It erupted about 76,000 years ago. Toba put 2800 cubic
kilometers of ash in the atmosphere. In theory, the worldwide temperatures
in the temperate zones must have been below freezing year around for
several years in a row. If that happens today, tens of millions of humans
will starve. Due to the frequency of these volcanic eruptions, the chances
are about 1 in 1000 that in the next 50 years a volcano will erupt more
than 1000 cubic kilometers of ash on planet Earth.
Historical Asteroid/Comet Impact Activity:
The Solar System satellites and
planets are covered with impacts. The Earth surface erosion and dynamic
plate motions cover up the Earth's impact craters. We have been able to
discover only about 150 impacts on Earth so far. As one who has seen many
relatively new, large, bright-rayed craters on the lunar far side, I am
very concerned about the need to prevent these events. [Michael Paine
defined] the need for funding in Australia for an Australian Spaceguard
Program, stating that the chance for a 1 kilometer diameter asteroid
impacting Earth is 1 in 2000 in the next 50 years. The impact speed will be
about 70,000 km/hr. The reference noted that this impact would not be an
'extinction event' but perhaps 1/4 of the Earth's population would die --
1.5 billion of us -- and civilization would collapse. The Spaceguard Survey
goal is finding 90% of the 1 kilometer diameter or larger objects in the
next 10 years. To meet that goal, about 400 Earth-crossers per year must be
discovered. From July 1997 through June 1998, Spaceguard astronomers found
38 new asteroids 1 kilometer diameter or larger. The Spaceguard survey must
be beefed up with dollars and people.
Historical Solar Activity:
Can we count on the sun? Two hundred thousand
year old Greenland ice cores show that the Earth's temperature varied
between 3 and 5 degrees C in 20 years time. No doubt, those bad old
Neanderthals were using too many CFC'S? Not likely. In recorded history,
the 'Little Ice Age' was centered on solar activity when sunspots declined
and the sun was quiet for about 70 years. Sunspots declined in 1615 and
reached an all time low in 1670.
What Can We Do?
The amazing fact is that, purely by accident, all the
things that we must do to put humans permanently on the Moon, Mars, and
suitable Earth crossing asteroids are exactly the kinds of things we will
need to do to save lives on Earth and our civilization when bad event(s)
What Are We Doing?
We know that to live and work on the Moon or Mars, we
will require the following:
1. Reliable, Uninterruptable Power:
We can readily achieve this with the
Space Power Reactor which for 5 Curries of launch radiation will supply 750
kWh reliably on the Moon or Mars. Why does not the United States require
that our electric power to be reliable and uninterruptible as a matter of
national security and national survival? Lives are lost every year when
electric power fails. On a high priority, Space Power Reactor development
must be supported and accelerated with upgraded power capabilities.
To survive on the Moon and Mars we must grow our own food
in totally closed-loop systems. We continue to demonstrate how to do this.
A National Geographic article recently reported that 80 bushels of wheat an
acre is a great crop. Under IR light emitting diodes to avoid heat, our
wheat produces 600 bushels an acre in 75 days. And, Dr. Bugbee has proposed
a new higher production wheat with shorter growing times. Our engineering
development demonstrations of our Terraforming ability should be supported
and accelerated on a high priority basis.
3. Closed Loop Environments:
Humans on other places in the solar system
will recycle everything they eat, drink and breathe. The recent 90-day
tests at JSC and the future Bioplex are demonstrating these capabilities.
These closed-loop systems will be controlled by sophisticated computer
software with provisions for manual maintenance and repair. The Bioplex
facility should be accelerated on a high priority basis.
To go to Mars, fast heavy lift will be required. It is
possible to prove out the better and cheaper but slower methods of
transportation. From the standpoint of human radiation, fast heavy lift
will be far better. Magnum Booster development and Dr. Franklin
Chang-Diaz's rocket engine developments should be accelerated on a high
priority to transport people and hardware to these places.
5. Propellant Production on the Other Satellites and Planets:
the weight requirements to Mars, we will develop automatic factories that
produce and load rocket propellant into the return rockets. The automatic
production of propellants using the materials on Earth-crossing asteroids
will be very helpful in allowing people to work successfully on
Earth-crossing asteroids. Needless to say, if an Earth-crossing asteroid
has Earth's name on it, moving the asteroid out of a collision orbit with
its own propellant and its own rocket guidance and control package is far
better than the 'Armageddon' approach which won't work. 'In-situ'
propellant development on the Moon and Mars should be accelerated.
6. Pressure Suits:
To work on the Moon, Mars, and asteroids, reliable,
lower weight pressure suits will be needed. We now have two Advanced
Pressure suits at the Johnson Space Center. To work in very cold
temperatures on Earth, caused by volcanoes, asteroids, or the sun, the
layering and insulation of these new pressure suits will be a natural for
human operations when Earth gets cold. Who knows, even our heated gloves
might be required. Acceleration of Lunar/Mars pressure suit development
must be pursued on a high priority basis.
Very Big Event Scenarios:
Unfortunately there can be very big Earth events
such as giant volcanoes or very large asteroid impacts or combinations
about which we can do nothing. We will probably be a long time making the
scientific and technical progress we will need to cope with these events.
When we learn how to live and work on other places in the solar system,
partial planetary evacuation of Earth will become possible.
The human race is at total war. Our enemy is ignorance, pure
and simple. The last 25 years of NASA's Solar System exploration including
Earth is telling us what we need to do to preserve our species. This new
knowledge is useless unless we act on it. Large volcanoes on Earth, giant
impacts on Earth, or unreliable solar activity cannot be ignored.
Historical statistics show that these events are likely in our lifetimes or
the lifetimes of our children and grandchildren. Knowing what we know now,
we are being irresponsible in our failure to make the scientific and
technical progress we will need for protecting our newly discovered
severely threatened and probably endangered species -- us. NASA is not
about the 'Adventure of Human Space Exploration,' we are in the deadly
serious business of saving the species. All Human Exploration's bottom line
is about preserving our species over the long haul.
It is recommended that we:
1. Beef up Spaceguard with dollars and people.
2. Develop uninterruptable power supplies such as Space Power Reactors on a
high priority basis.
3. Accelerate the Bioplex schedule to learn how to best Terraform and 100
percent recycle food, water, and waste.
4. Accelerate the development of heavy lift such as the Magnum Booster and
Dr. Chang-Diaz's powerful rocket engine that we need for rapid space travel.
5. Accelerate the development of the Automatic Robotic factories that will
produce rocket propellant on the asteroids and other places in the Solar
6. Accelerate the development of Advanced Pressure Suits to provide for
"routine" operations on other places in the Solar System.
DISCLAIMER: The text on this page has since been published in "The Lunar Base Handbook" (see bibliography for
"NASA is not about the 'Adventure of Human Space Exploration,' we are in the deadly
serious business of saving the species."
- John Young