Cambridge-Conference Digest, 1 November 1997
Partial text from Time Magazine, October 27, 1997:
Dreadful Sorry, Clementine: Washington brushes off the asteroid threat
During the 3 or 4 billion years that it has existed on Earth, life as been devastated, and on occasion nearly wiped out, by the explosive impact of giant asteroids or comets. Now terrestrial life has finally evolved to the point where it is intelligent and capable enough to defend itself against such threats from space - if it has the will to do so.
That is why some scientists are so distressed by President Clinton's line-item veto last week of the $30 million that Congress had allocated for the Clementine II project next year. Clementine is a spacecraft that was to be launched in 1999 to approach an asteroid named Toutatis and send a camera-equiped rocket barreling into it. ... Reasons for the veto, an Administration spokeman explained, included concern that the project might violate the Antiballistic Missile Treaty, that it was a thinly-disguised supplement to other Pentagon projects and more logically belonged in the NASA budget. Another - but unspoken - reason, say scientists familiar with the budget debate, is the "giggle factor", the tendency of many in government to scoff at the danger posed by asteroids. ...
In an attempt to assess the danger, a few dedicated astronomers have been scanning the skies, borrowing time on large telescopes, building their own detectors out of off-the-shelf parts and barely scraping by on the $1 million or so NASA contributes annually to the total effort. Their goal is to identify and determine the orbits of the still undiscovered near Earth asteroids. That would enable them to predict, sometimes many years in advance, the possibility of a disastrous encounter. Those predictions and knowledge gained from missions like Clementine would give Earth's defenders time to mount the appropriate defense, using missiles to deflect or destroy a threatening intruder.
With a bit more funding and access to the Air Force's satellite tracking telescopes, say astronomers, they could find and track the most threatening asteroids within a decade. The cost to taxpayers, they estimate, would be a few million dollars more a year. If you think of it as an insurance policy for the entire planet, it's a small price to pay.