/ Published October 22, 2019
Fire in the Sky: Cosmic Collisions, Killer Asteroids, and the Race to Defend Earth by Gordon L. Dillow. Simon & Schuster, 2019, 269 pp.
Over the eons, Earth has been pummeled and pulverized millions of times by asteroids and comets. The most astronomically astounding fact of it all is this was not a wholly unusual or imaginary event. Just ask the dinosaurs.
Although author and journalist Gordon Dillow interviewed no dinosaurs on the record for this book, he found more than ample evidence to elucidate the point of his book: A cosmic collision with our planet has happened before and will happen again, and the consequences from there are potentially catastrophic. As Dillow convincingly argues throughout the book, size doesn’t matter much, as a strike from any high-velocity space object—even one only a couple yards long—can have a significant impact. We don’t need to be hit by a six-mile-wide asteroid, like what the dinosaurs saw, to change the fabric of our everyday life. Through the use of vivid imagery and compelling storytelling, Dillow demonstrates the magnitude of an interstellar collision between the cosmos and our Earth. His language is littered with metaphoric comparisons of scale to signify immensity, like how a meteor crater in nowhere Arizona is as deep as the Washington Monument is tall (p. 17).
The book as a whole takes a linear approach, starting in the past and pushing into the future with intermittent time jumps in chapters to relevant stories. Chapters 1–5 are focused in the past, from the Earth’s early wounds by celestial objects to the extinction event that likely led to the demise of the dinosaurs, then chronicling modern man’s nascent and evolving understanding of near-earth objects (NEO), defined as an object that comes within 30 million miles of Earth’s orbit regardless of size (p. 98). Chapters 6–9 occur more in the now with chapters crafted as calls to action for safeguarding our future from NEOs. These final chapters are the culmination of Dillow’s keen interest in NEOs and their fatal consequences.
When you read Dillow’s writing, you feel like you’re speaking with a friend at a bar, chatting about comets over a beer. Dillow is a fantastic storyteller, whose colloquial, clever, and clear writing makes his book an easy read. Fire in the Sky is not a book intended for scientists, who would probably find some aspects of Dillow’s book jejune and overly simplistic. But don’t be deceived in thinking this explanatory account of the cosmos is purely an exegesis about rocks in space, void of narrative substance about humanity’s relation to it all. Dillow’s account is all too human as well, with its heroes and charlatans.
Dillow’s book is mainly about the people, the heroes who faced uphill battles of skepticism to get institutions to take NEOs seriously, like Lindley Johnson, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s first planetary defense officer and former Air Force officer who internally pressured the Air Force to enhance its role in NEO programs (p. 175). In the past, the Air Force has tended to venerate—as heroes—the swashbuckling sky patriots over the intellectually sagacious thinkers. But as the service enters deeper into the twenty-first century, where multidomain contention requires a keen grasp of cyber complexities and space dependencies, one starts to question after reading Dillow’s stories the superior qualities of heroes. Looking forward, should we prefer Captain Kirk over Captain Han Solo or John Boyd over Robin Olds? Indeed, Dillow’s book gets military readers thinking about the qualities of a military hero in space.
The Air Force writ large has a unique role in this cosmic saga and is not blind to NEOs as an existential threat. Dillow does great justice to highlighting the USAF’s interests in NEOs. For example, in 1998 the Air Force teamed up with NASA and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology to set up a NEO research project at the White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico, utilizing the Air Force’s telescopes there, intended originally to track satellites and other man-made objects (p. 135).
One of Dillow’s most interesting subjects is the future mining of asteroids (e.g., mining for rare-earth metals). Although he doesn’t go into prescient depth on the subject, Dillow does get readers thinking about it. As a case in point, the half-mile wide near-Earth asteroid 162173 Ryugu is rich with nickel-iron, worth an estimated $85 billion (p. 134). It’s no surprise then that the Japanese space agency not only sent a vehicle to the asteroid but is also looking at how to mine it. NASA and other companies are developing technologies to harvest the riches that asteroids offer (p. 231). This development may all sound well and good, but there is a flip side to capitalism in space. In the near-term, there are sufficient supplies of iron and other metals on Earth, but as demand increases and supply depletes, space becomes increasingly a contested environment for these resources (p. 70). And in the geopolitical context of the “now,” it’s no secret that China holds a monopoly on the world’s supply of rare-earth metals—such metals used in the manufacturing of, say, the F-35. In the future, countries could marshal their militaries to appropriate NEOs’ resources. Need we forget history’s lessons on nation-states that go to war fighting for resources, as was seen leading up to World War II in the Pacific? Space power and a US Space Corps become that much more relevant.
As a whole, Fire in The Sky is most interesting, not just in its content but in the questions it forces us to ask about the future. The book is a superb chronicling of humanity’s confrontation with NEOs and humanity’s evolving understanding of them. Sometimes, Dillow is too cavalier in his writing, sprinkling bits of political commentary here and there. Overall, it’s a great read for the layperson. Most importantly, he accomplishes his goal in getting people to think about the consequences of cosmic collisions—between rocks and between peoples.
Capt Jose R. Davis, USAF
600 Chennault Circle
Maxwell AFB, AL 36112-6010