When I first heard astronaut Ron Garan use the term “fragile oasis,” I immediately thought of it in ecological terms. Many astronauts have echoed Ron’s thoughts, focusing in particular on the thin atmosphere that is the only barrier between us and the vacuum of space.
However, I had another understanding of the term recently, when two extraordinary events took place on the same day. First, there was a meteor strike that hit Russia, shaking buildings, shattering glass, and injuring more than a thousand people. Then, there was the too-close-for-comfort flyby of an asteroid that passed within the orbits of many of our own communications satellites. (Another one came through just about a week ago.)
The asteroid encounter was expected, the meteor strike was not. Both engendered excitement and fear, though, as scientists let us know how lucky we were that the meteor did not explode closer to the ground and the asteroid was not in a slightly different orbit. We heard a lot about the dinosaurs and why they are no longer with us.
The asteroid, named 2012 D14, is actually the more serious problem. Meteorites crash into the atmosphere every day, most of them burning up harmlessly. The danger of asteroids is that there are so many out there, and we don’t know where all of them are. The media talked at some length about mitigation strategies, which sounds plausible, but you need to have advance warning before you can try to nudge these space rocks away from our home planet.
After the excitement died down, what occurred to me is that the Earth really is a fragile oasis, in more ways than one. It’s not just an environmental issue; it’s also the fact that a collision with something the size of a small car could be the end of life as we know it.
As one who has long been interested in the Overview Effect, it also brought to mind something those of us at the Overview Institute have been trying to communicate for some time: we are in space, we have always been in space, and we will always be in space.
We are traveling through the universe in a natural spaceship at a high rate of speed, and there are lots of other things rushing about as well: comets, asteroids, meteors, and even a rogue planet or two.
It is not surprising that astronauts like Rusty Schweickart and Ed Lu are interested in figuring out how to save the planet from an asteroid hit. They have been out there and they’ve seen the Earth not only from space but also in space. They know that you can hold up your thumb and blot out the past, present, and future of humanity and all life. They know, in short, how precious this fragile oasis really is.
For some, the message is clear: if we are to survive, we must become a multi-planet species, and that is likely to happen, perhaps sooner than we think. For others, it is asteroid mitigation to protect the planet. For me, it is both. Our true environment, as the asteroid and meteor reminded us, is the solar system, and we need to learn as much about that new environment as we can if we are going to survive and thrive.