The Hypersonic Conundrum

Global Extinction or a Space-Industrial Complex

During the the peak of the Apollo program, the United States government funded NASA at over 4% of the federal budget1 as compared to the less than 0.5% of federal funding NASA receives today. The allocation of resources was possible as our country perceived a real threat from the Soviet Union and their launch of Sputnik. Not only did we mobilize our military and technological assets to protect our way of life, but President Kennedy energized the nation in a time of global crisis while the Cold War was threatening the world with nuclear annihilation.2

...this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before the decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the earth.

These words still elicit powerful emotions both from those who experienced them at the time and those born well after Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin, and Michael Collins returned to Earth. Clearly, this rich history in space exploration and fierce protection of our culture was founded on the existential threat of a Soviet Union that would dominate space and command intercontinental missiles with nuclear weapons. Regardless of whether the threat was real or perceived, the vision along with presidential leadership mobilized a nation to accomplish tasks that benefitted the US in innumerable ways.

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Image credit:
NASA Ames Research Center.

Yet, the bigger existential threat of annihilation of all humanity, by nuclear holocaust or natural forces, is currently considered too remote to be taken seriously. The geological record has preserved the rise and decline of many species throughout earth’s history, whether their extinctions were the result of asteroid impacts, volcanic activity, solar flares, or gamma ray bursts from distant star systems. To think humanity above the historical trends of the universe is conceited and illogical. Perhaps it is time to reconsider the annihilation threat and to entertain the need for an off-Earth sustainable colony.

Humanity might not get a second chance at survival. The idea of an extinction event has long been fuel for science fiction writers, and is exemplified in the novel by Neal Stephenson entitled Seveneves.3 In Seveneves, humanity will be wiped out on Earth within two years unless nations collaborate to put a small group of astronauts and scientists on the International Space Station in hopes they survive and repopulate the planet. Science fiction has been known to become science fact, both in ways that are beneficial to society, and in ways that have negative consequences. A study of threats and a dystopian future is also inculcated into academia, with Niklas Bostrom, the founder of the “Future of Humanity Institute,” as a recognized leader. While the risk in any given year might be quite small, there is almost certainly an eventual global extinction event. With a growing population and the speed of destructive technological advancements, the annual risk of humanity’s downfall may be increasing. When the inevitable is presented as a certain future, or happens before we can react, what will be humanity’s last collective thought? Given our current technological prowess, perhaps the time to take action is now. During a Wall Street Journal All Things Digital conference,4 Elon Musk said:

Either we spread Earth to other planets, or we risk going extinct. An extinction event is inevitable and we’re increasingly doing ourselves in.

World renown physicist Steven Hawking agrees and recently told a gathering at the Big Think:5

I believe that the long-term future of the human race must be in space. It will be difficult enough to avoid disaster on planet Earth in the next hundred years, let alone the next thousand, or million. The human race shouldn’t have all its eggs in one basket, or on one planet. Let’s hope we can avoid dropping the basket until we have spread the load.

The timing and the nature of this event remains truly unknown. Predictions suggest an existential event may come from space or be the product of our own hand, but we will likely remain ignorant of the cause until its near arrival. What we do know is that if humanity is still inhabiting only one planet, our unique life stories will be tragically and permanently erased. Thus, we confront the realization of the likelihood of a global extinction event that we have absolutely no control over, that we currently have no defense for, and no plans to escape from. We are deluded into believing that since an extinction event is rare, it can not occur in our lifetime. Consider the attitude expressed in the Jet Propulsion Laboratory’s Near Earth Object program’s website6 which states:

On an average of every several hundred thousand years or so, asteroids larger than a kilometer could cause global disasters … No one should be overly concerned about an Earth impact of an asteroid or comet. The threat to any one person from auto accidents, disease, other natural disasters and a variety of other problems is much higher than the threat from [Near Earth Objects] NEOs. Over long periods of time, however, the chances of the Earth being impacted are not negligible so that some form of NEO insurance is warranted. At the moment, our best insurance rests with the NEO scientists and their efforts to first find these objects and then track their motions into the future. We need to first find them, then keep an eye on them.

However, what will our response be if we find an NEO larger than a kilometer that is on a collision course with Earth? A database is not an insurance policy and leaves open the issue of an appropriate response. Currently, our only real hope lies with mitigation strategies predicated on intercepting7 or redirecting8 NEO objects. The former suggests using a robotic spacecraft that is weighted or carries a nuclear explosive and the latter will redirect the NEO object with a robotic spacecraft. However, as NASA states in their “Asteroid and Comet Watch” website9 a response requires decades of warning time if the NEO object is larger that a few hundred meters.

We needed Sputnik to motivate our resolve for the domination of space. The mental contrast of one day dreaming about space travel through science fiction, and then seeing it live on television in the living room, stimulated our imaginations. President Kennedy’s speech inspired a nation and the decade-long pursuit that saw a surge in academic scholarship and technological advances. There are many technologies and spinoffs10 woven into the fabric of the world culture that owe their birth to that speech and subsequent technology development.

Can we expect the development of a humanity insurance policy before a crisis begins? It might require funding of NASA at levels similar to the 1960s, when we successfully landed men on the moon. It might require the development of a space-industrial complex that could help drive future economic growth. It might require that we spread out to other planets and achieve Earth independence to stave off global human extinction, even on our watch. It does require that we take the threat, and its inevitability, seriously and devote resources to preventing our extinction.

The ancient seafarers were motivated to take risks for the sake of curiosity and the desire for exploration and resources.11 The drive to leave the planet and set up colonies is similar: There is the allure, the curiosity, the adventure, and the insurance. It could, and should, be an international effort justified based on the purpose of planning for the preservation of humanity.

Certain plans are underway. Mars One is a nonprofit organization that promotes its plans for a Mars settlement within fifteen years.12 Elon Musk’s company SpaceX is reportedly developing plans to send large numbers of people to Mars.13 And NASA recently released a comprehensive strategy14 that leverages near-term space activities with a comprehensive capability development culminating in an independent human presence on Mars. The NASA plan, at a minimum, would provide a future with a sustainable presence for humanity in deep space and provide an answer to many global extinction scenarios. Some of these plans are more logistically feasible than others, but all demonstrate the ambition of a select sect of humanity interested in pursuing off-Earth colonization. This strategy is well reasoned and has the potential to save humanity as well as provide a much needed economic boost by creating a space-industrial complex with the nascent private-public partnerships15 for mining asteroids, manufacturing propellant on the moon, creating fuel depots, and launching humans into space. The spinoff technologies would fuel real job growth as evidenced by the Apollo program of the 1960s. Rather than a short lived event to win a space race, this modern space age will be designed as a sustained effort in human space colonization. The current roadblocks preventing this strategy from moving forward are budgets, political priorities, and the changeable public interests; the exact same denouement of the moon landings over 40 years ago. An article posted on the Washington Post website by Joel Achenbach made the following observation:16

At the moment NASA can’t even get an astronaut to the International Space Station without buying a seat on a Russian rocket. A new NASA space capsule that was conceived in 2005 likely won’t be ready until 2023, according to NASA’s latest estimate, and it’s built for 21-day missions, not for trips to Mars.

The same article quotes Doug Cooke, a former NASA associate administrator as saying:

There needs to be more of a plan for actually getting there [Mars]. You can’t have a flat-line budget indefinitely and think you’re going to put all of this together by 2030.

We must support the mission of human space exploration and colonization with both our interests as well as our national budget priorities if we want any hope of surviving the inevitable existential global extinction event.


1. Jason Callahan, “The Competition for Dollars.”, (accessed October 11, 2015).

2. President John F. Kennedy. “Special Message to the Congress on Urgent National Needs.” Delivered in person before a joint session of Congress May 25, 1961.

3. Neal Stephenson, Seveneves, (New York: Harper Collins Publisher, 2015).

4. Liz Gannes, “Tech Renaissance Man Elon Musk Talks Cars, Spaceships and Hyperloops at D11.”, (accessed October 9, 2015).

5. Big Think Editors, “#5: Stephen Hawking’s Warning: Abandon Earth—Or Face Extinction.”, (accessed October 9, 2015).

6. NASA JPL, “Target Earth.”, (accessed October 10, 2015).

7. NASA, “NASA’s Deep Impact Produced Deep Results”, (accessed November 20, 2015).

8. NASA, “What Is NASA’s Asteroid Redirect Mission?”, (accessed November 20, 2015).

9. NASA, “Asteroid and Comet Watch.”, (accessed November 15, 2015).

10. NASA JSC, “The Best of NASA’S Spinoffs.”, (accessed October 11, 2015).

11. Heather Pringle, “Primitive Humans Conquered Sea, Surprising Finds Suggest.”, (accessed October 11, 2015).



14. NASA, “NASA’s Pioneering Next Steps in Space Exploration.”, (accessed October 10, 2015).

15. Andy Pasztor, “NASA-Sponsored Study Extols Private-Public Partnerships.”, (accessed October 13, 2015).

16. Joel Achenbach, “Don’t worry. Matt Damon won’t get stuck on Mars. NASA can’t get him there.”, (accessed October 10, 2015).


Kevin Hertzler graduated from Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University with a degree in Aerospace and Ocean Engineering in 1974. He built his career in a variety of roles in the aerospace industry, starting as an aerospace engineer for the Office of Advanced Manned Vehicles at the Air Force Flight Test Center analyzing the aerothermodynamics of the Space Shuttle during its Operational Flight Test Program, then as a conceptual design engineer for the Lockheed Skunk Works in Burbank, CA and as a subcontracted research engineer studying electromagnetic propagation and scattering physics at the NASA Langley Research Center for the National Institute of Aerospace.  Additionally, he founded an engineering consultancy, Hertzler & Associates, LLC. Kevin Hertzler can be reached at kevin.hertzler@

Dr. Rebecca McCauley Rench successfully defended her PhD in Geosciences and Astrobiology at the Pennsylvania State University in 2015. Her graduate work focused on the diversity and metabolic potential of cave microbial communities as they relate to early Earth analog environments and the search for life. A West Virginia native, she completed her undergraduate schooling at West Virginia University and holds a B.A. in Biology and a B.A. in Chemistry. Before starting her graduate education and after obtaining her B.A. degrees, Dr. McCauley Rench participated in disaster preparedness response as an AmeriCorps member in San Francisco. Dr. McCauley Rench is a Truman Scholar and NSF Graduate Research Fellow, as well as a Research Associate at the Potomac Institute for Policy Studies. Dr. McCauley Rench can be reached at: rmccauleyrench@


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