This article was originally published on July 22, 1994.
Is this just the product of a dirty mind, or did it look like Jupiter got pregnant the other night?
As commentator after commentator showed the same footage - the little comet streaming in, the big egg of the planet waiting patiently, and then the Ping] of arrival - there seemed little doubt the world was watching some sort of cosmic rerun.
On Nightline, the cameras cut to a group of elite scientists watching a monitor and whooping like football fans. Scientist Heidi Hamel explained: "First we saw the big plume sticking out of the side of the planet and then the big black splotch and we were just blown away, absolutely blown away."
Of course, that's just technical talk. The reason we feel so akin to comets, it turns out, is because "we're related to comets in a very direct sense," according to Gene Shoemaker, one of the discoverers of the thing hitting Jupiter, who was interviewed on Nightline.
Why? Because, explained Dr. Michael Berenson to Ted Koppel, comets are really just "dirty icebergs." Comets brought water to earth, along with the basic chemicals for life to form. So, if the "mountain-sized fragments" colliding with Jupiter reminded you of sperm pinging into an ovum, this is perfectly reasonable. These may be life-bearing comets, and since we're all relatives here, there's no reason for embarrassment.
Still, when news commentators begin talking confidently about how exciting it would be when the Galileo spacecraft (coincidentally named after the dude who first spied the still-virgin Jupiter through a telescope in 1609) sends back big glossy pictures of the comet "pummelling the backside" of the planet, a certain amount of restraint, or at least a Mature Subject Matter warning seems to be in order. One thing about scientists: they're really terribly inaccurate, especially when they get all excited like this.
In a series of interviews on Nightline, the date when the comets came and got Earth pregnant varied widely: about four billion years ago, announced the ABC correspondent. Someone else (it may even have been Carl Sagan) described it as "billions" of years ago, and Dr. Paul Schleicher fumbled about, saying comets may have accounted for much of the water that came on earth "two, three or four billion years ago." You don't like to be a stickler for detail, but isn't this a fairly loose margin of error?
Sagan said the chances of a comet blowing away civilization in the next century was one in a thousand (someone else said the math was unclear; it might be one in 10,000 chances). Don't worry, though. Scientists are working on a plan to knock any incoming comets off course with a nuclear blast, said David Morrison of NASA. How many scientists?
"Fewer than work at the average McDonald's," said Morrison, with no indication of what the staff of an average McDonald's is, but leaving the odd impression that somehow we could hide from incoming comets under the golden arches. What is the average staff of a McDonald's? Certainly fewer than a billion. Or thereabouts. The other reason there's so much space on TV (between the re-runs, of course) is because it was 25 years ago that Neil Armstrong stepped on the moon and said those immortal words: "That's one small step for man. . . . And one giant leap for mankergggh."
Having heard the tape about 50 times this week, this is almost certainly what he said. The communication system, as astronaut Michael Collins explained it on another late-night show, started "going ratty" as soon as the spacecraft went around the far side of the moon. Global TV showed Neil Armstrong, in a 1989 file clip, saying he thought up that line between the time the lunar module landed and a few hours later when he climbed out. Armstrong said he didn't plan on anything before because "I guess in my own view we didn't have that good a chance" of completing the landing.
Pop scientist Carl Sagan also cropped up this week in various places talking about the moon walk of 20 years ago, asserting it was not about science, but politics. The point, as one astronaut explained, was asserting that America "was the undisputed leader of the free world." (Although if memory serves, Russia wasn't really after the free world title at the time.) But, as David Letterman observed to Susan Sarandon earlier this week, "You don't hear so much about Commies anymore, do you?"
In any case, the effort to show Commies who was boss came perilously close to costing the astronauts lives, as they came down to the moon with a malfunctioning computer. They landed - depending on which TV announcer you listened to this week - with either "between seven and 17 seconds" and "just 18 seconds" of fuel left.
Obviously, moon-madness keeps creeping into the coverage. Ted Koppel, broadcasting from the naval observatory in Washington, began by reading a script about how he was taught about the Battle of Hastings as a child in England. His teleprompter was not working, and the giant telescope behind him was pointing away from, not toward Jupiter.
John Darby, on Global, noted rather John Boy Walton-ishly that he remembered walking out into "that warm New Brunswick night" to look up at the sky.
"It's one of those events which is a yardstick by which we measure the passing of our lives and which countless millions still share." Ignoring the issue of measuring out your life in yardsticks, there's that "countless" notion again. Let's agree that the number is large, but not really astronomical. The number may be large, but it isn't countless, just unknown. Other TV estimates figure 600-million people watched the event on TV that night, which was bigger than The Beatles on The Smothers Brothers show, but not really up to World Cup standards. All these erratic time references help put things in perspective. Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey, which was released a year before the moon landing, has been running on The Movie Channel this month, as part of the space-o-rama events. In the famous opening sequence, an ape discovers how to use a bone as a weapon to smash another ape's head. As he tosses the bone triumphantly in the air, it turns into a spaceship. Human progress, we see, is driven by war.
Only science fiction stays sort of the same through the years. Midst the space hoopla on Wednesday, it was also possible to watch the regular airing of Lost in Space on CKVR, a kiddie show from the sixties, with June Lockhart as a space mom.
It seems the Robinson family was trapped on a planet with two aliens, one who looked like a golden idol (although he really had a head like a peach pit) and called himself Dr. Keema, and another alien who had a frog head were about to do battle. The golden Dr. Keema mentioned in a soliloquy that he wanted to "get these foolish Earthlings' weapons and then use them against themselves." Then he blasted Robot (which looks like a guy dressed up in a garbage can with a plastic bowl on his head) with a ray so the robot went crazy, singing fragments of songs and announcing, "I compute, you compute, we all compute. . . ."
The episode first aired in 1966, a full three years before Neil Armstrong's bad microphone congratulated "mankergggh," on our big leap, and before Hal the computer went nuts in 2001: A Space Odyssey. But the moral remains consistent: technology's pretty cool, but it has a nasty tendency to go ratty in emergencies. How much better it is to sit back and watch the cosmic lovemaking.