“A fleet of spaceships?” Cindy’s father asked. “In orbit around this planet?”
“Yes, dad. We were wondering if that was the case, and some people in the government knew about it, could they keep it a secret?”
He laughed. “No. Not a chance. There are over five hundred observatories around the world. And a lot of them are monitoring for near-earth objects that could threaten us. If there was even one spaceship up there, someone would have seen it and we’d all know about it in a matter of minutes.”
“What’s a near earth object?” Madison asked.
“Asteroids and comets that get relatively close to us at some point in their orbits. We keep an eye on them so that if any of them threaten to hit us, we know about it well in advance,” he explained.
“What would we do about it if we saw one?” Cindy asked.
“There are lots of ideas. Since the distances we’re talking about are so great, just a little nudge could avoid the problem if you catch it soon enough. So it kind of depends on how far in advance we know and how great the threat is. There’s lots of sources of error in the calculations, so it’s all about probabilities.”
“Could the government cover that up? If there was one of those?” Madison asked.
“Definitely not. The government relies on that network of observatories I mentioned. We all talk to each other. There’s no way that if something like that were heading for us that we wouldn’t all know about it. We might not tell the public, but we’d know.”
“Are you hiding this information from us right now?” Cindy asked excitedly.
He laughed again. “No. Scout’s honor. The earth is not going to be hit by a NEO. Well, technically it will eventually—there’s no doubt about that—but nobody knows when it’ll happen. It could be a few million years. What’s this about? Is it for school?”
“It’s for a news story,” Madison said. “I’ve learned about some government and ex-government people who are up to something, and one of them mentioned Star Wars.”
“Star Wars?” he asked.
“Yeah, so that’s why we were thinking maybe there were spaceships involved,” Cindy explained.
“Are you sure they meant the movie?”
Madison and Cindy looked at each other and then at Cindy’s father. “What else would they have meant?” Cindy asked.
“Have you girls heard of SDI? The Strategic Defense Initiative?”
Both girls shook their heads.
“So back in the eighties we had President Reagan,” he explained. “This was the cold war, so he and his counterparts in the USSR—Andropov I think?—were constantly trying to one-up each other. And Reagan became obsessed with this idea of using lasers to shoot down missiles.”
“Is that even possible?” Cindy asked.
“Absolutely not. Lasers are cool, but you can’t make them powerful enough, and ICBMs move really fast. It’d be like trying to shoot a car on the highway from a couple miles away, from the side, at night. The entire idea was insane, and Senator Kennedy gave a speech mocking the whole idea and called it ‘Star Wars’ as a way of pointing out that this Hollywood actor slash President was basing our new national defense strategy on things he saw in a movie.”
“Reagan was an actor?” Madison asked.
Cindy’s father smiled. “Yes. They don’t teach that in school?”
“We always run out of school year in the sixties. Never get past the Cuban Missile Crisis,” Cindy explained.
“I see,” he replied. “Okay, well yeah, Reagan was an actor. Worked with a monkey, I think. And then he was the governor of California, and then President. So he called the space laser idea SDI but pretty soon everyone was calling it Star Wars.”
“Like how everyone calls the ACA Obamacare,” Madison said.
“Yes. Exactly. It started as a name meant to make fun of it, but then it stuck and even people who liked the program started using it.”
“Did they build any space lasers?” Cindy asked.
“I don’t think so. The whole thing turned into a boondoggle. All the defense contractors came up with different ideas for how to shoot down missiles. The government spent a ridiculous amount of money on it, and eventually congress refused to fund it anymore and it sort of faded away, I think.”
“Interesting,” Madison said.
“I’m no expert. This is just what I remember. I’m sure if you do some research on the web you can find out a lot more,” he suggested.
“Thanks, Daddy!” Cindy said, and gave him a little hug.
“Yes, thank you so much. I’ll chase this idea down and see what I can find,” Madison said.