Paul Sandorff did not look like a harbinger of doom. A wiry man with short-cropped hair and an affinity for meteoroids, he’d been teaching at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology for nearly fifteen years when he proposed the earth would be destroyed on June 14, 1968.
It had been projected years before that an asteroid named Icarus would come dangerously close to earth in the summer of 1968. Named for the mythological figure who flew too close to the Sun, the mile-wide rock was first discovered in 1949.
Graphs plotting Icarus’s orbit drew a deep “U,” bottoming out at just 4 million miles—nearly 17 times the moon’s distance from the earth, closer than any contemporary celestial body had advanced toward our planet. The popular press was abuzz with speculation—what if it had been a collision course? Robert Richardson wrote in a famous Scientific American article, “A change of only a few degrees in the position of the descending node of Icarus’ orbit … would make it possible for Icarus and the earth to be at the same place at the same time.” Put less lightly, were this collision to occur, Icarus would crash into earth with nearly 33,000 times the force of the Hiroshima bomb, decimating millions.
In February 1967, Sandorff was teaching advanced space systems engineering. Capitalizing on the sensation of the asteroid’s near approach at some 19 miles per second, he created the class “Mission to Icarus.” Only now, the course assumed that Icarus would in fact strike the earth. Destruction was imminent. The students must stop the doomsday (during classes on Tuesdays and Thursdays, February through May). Even the syllabus spared no drama:
Clearly, Icarus must be stopped. No effort or funds will be spared in carrying out the detailed plan to be developed by the crack team of scientists and engineers assigned to the project…
The problem solution may utilize a rocket to intercept the asteroid and nudge it from its course. Alternatively, it may be better to reduce it to rubble with a nuclear warhead.
The challenge had been issued. Solutions had been suggested. It was up to the students to determine the strategy.
The class split into four technical groups to examine the problem: orbits, trajectories, celestial mechanics, and astronomy; boosters and propulsion; nuclear payloads; and space vehicles. To equip them, Sandorff assigned readings ranging from Richardson’s article to meteor crater formations to the catastrophic effects of collisions in space. He further supplemented these with reports acquired from companies like General Dynamics, which sent their summaries of the Atlas-Centaur launches, a series designed to carry payloads into space.
A star roster of guests kept students abreast of new findings. Samuel Herrick, known colloquially to the research community as “Mr. Icarus,” sent a reprint of his famous publication Icarus and the Variation of Parameters and flew from California to meet the class. John S. Kelly, director of the Division of Peaceful Nuclear Explosives, mailed the details of nuclear explosive power and Fred Whipple, director of the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory, led an afternoon talk. In addition, the students traveled to Cape Kennedy in Florida to see the rockets available for use. As Sandorff noted, “I know that the experience will make their studies much more realistic.”
And he was right. In the end, Icarus didn’t stand a chance. Presented for the public complete with slides, the team proposed six separate launch missions to blow apart the asteroid. Using NASA’s Saturn V rockets, they would arm six vehicles with explosive power. Four rockets would be launched to deflect the asteroid’s path and two would finish the job by exploding thermonuclear bombs. Icarus would be both blown off course and smashed to bits. In dramatic fashion, they would save the world less than a day before the expected June 14 collision. They estimated the cost at $7.5 billion with an 86 percent success rate in reducing potential damage.
Along with saving Earth, the students’ accomplishments continued beyond the classroom. Geoffrey Bentley, whose inability to “abbreviate” his presentations concerned his professor, went on to Textron Defense Systems. Richard Labrecque whose speaking was “a little tedious but good” eventually became chairman and CEO of ITT Fluid Technology Corporation. Bill Lange became founder and president at Aero Initiatives LLC.
“Mission to Icarus” remains little more than a memory, but the fascination with earth-bound asteroids continues. In 2012, MIT graduate student Sung Wook Paek proposed that a future collision might be deflected by blasting the asteroid with paintballs. All too timely, given that Icarus’s next close approach is forecasted for June 2015.