How to stop an asteroid... in 1915S

With all the fuss surrounding the close fly-by of asteroid 2012 DA14 tomorrow, the subject again arises of what could be done about an incoming space mountain... if anything.

The first time the potential danger of an asteroid impact was ever broached turns out, perhaps not surprisingly, to have been in a science fiction novel. What might be surprising, however, is that it was one published just shy of a century ago. Even more remarkably, the solution for escaping the danger is exactly the same as one being seriously proposed by NASA and many scientists.

Lawyer and mystery novelist Arthur Train and Robert Wood, a Johns Hopkins University professor (famous for his debunking of "N-rays" — remind me to tell you all about that) collaborated on a novel called The Moon Maker (a sequel to The Man Who Rocked the Earth — in which the authors published the first-ever accurate description of a nuclear blast... but that's another article). The novel was serialized in Cosmopolitan back when Cosmo was a very different magazine than it is now.

In Train and Wood's story, a spaceship called the Flying Ring is launched in answer to a threat to the earth by an errant asteroid, the 150 mile-wide Medusa (composed primarily of pitchblende, by the way), which is due to strike the earth. The asteroid was discovered and its deadly trajectory was calculated by a beautiful mathematical genius named Rhoda Gibbs, who joins the expedition as one of the astronauts.

The spaceship is atomic-powered, being propelled by a beam of alpha particles emitted by its disintegrating uranium fuel. After numerous adventures, the Flying Ring eventually intercepts Medusa. The earth is saved when the astronauts on board initiate a nuclear reaction on one face of the asteroid. The idea is not to destroy Medusa — which is much too big — but to instead cause a reaction that creates a small amount of thrust. This deflects the course of the asteroid just enough that when it eventually crosses the orbit of the earth months later, it misses our planet. Instead it becomes a miniature second moon (and hence the title of the book).

The novel, by the way, absolutely bears reading today: it holds up extraordinarily well. The story is filled with great characters (not the least of whom is the irrepressibly emancipated Rhoda), a lot of humor and some of the most scientifically accurate descriptions of spaceflight ever written... even by today's standards.