Imagine, if you will, an enormous United States rocket, poised on a launchpad for liftoff on a trip across the galaxy to a distant planet. Then, just moments later, deafening sounds engulf the sky as the monstrous beast’s engines ignite, spraying smoke and flames and heat a thousand yards in every direction. The spacecraft rises from its launching platform slowly, it seems, at first. As it climbs, though, its speed increases exponentially. In a matter of seconds, the vessel is a barely visible fireball in the sky. And then it disappears into the heavens, bound for a destination light-years away.
The lift-off went just as planned. Its timing was perfect; each element of the launch took place precisely as intended at exactly the right moment. The sequence of events leading to the successful launch followed the intended procedures down the fraction of a second. Launch could not have been any better.
Mission control watched as the rocket left the troposphere, pierced the stratosphere, the mesosophere, the thermosphere, and finally stabbed through the exosphere into the solar wind. No deviations from plan. Perfection at every stage. But, then, something went wrong. The moment the projectile flashed into the solar wind, the missile’s trajectory changes sharply into a huge arc.
Stunned engineers and scientists in the mission control room watch screens display a massive failure. In spite of the surprise, everyone knows what to do. They scramble to their stations to initiate responses to abort the mission. To their horror, though, none of their actions has an effect on the rocket. It continues on its downward arc. Almost instantaneous calculations suggest the spacecraft will, if allowed to continue on its present course, crash into a heavily populated area: Shanghai, China. Of course, the rocket is equipped with a self-destruct module, so that is not a worry. Right? We’ll see. And the object reentry risk analysis conducted before launch revealed the risk to human life to be small. So, we’ll have lost a lost of money, but no lives. Yet…
Everything that could go right, did. Until everything that could go wrong, did.
You are witnessing the latter. The self-destruct sequence did not begin as planned. The breakup on reetry into the atmosphere is not taking place, thanks to the trajectory of reentry. The rocket will hit Shanghai, a city with more than twenty-two million inhabitants, in a matter of minutes. Urgent high-level diplomatic communications take place almost immediately in an attempt to avoid retaliatory measures. Chinese fighter jets scramble in a vain attempt to destroy a rocket traveling many times faster than the jets’ maximum speed.
One extremely important bit of information, hidden from virtually everyone until this moment, is being relayed to the Chinese: the rocket’s payload includes nuclear devices with the destructive power of 40 megatons. The U.S. intended to test the device on Saturn upon completion of the mission. Now, instead, the bomb is heading toward Shanghai.
No one, not even the Chinese, know what the response will be when the world’s most populous city is destroyed by a U.S. nuclear bomb. Will a U.S. apology be enough? Will the Chinese people accept it? But wait, we don’t know yet whether the bomb will be detonated on impact. It’s too early to worry about that scenario. Right now, we need to focus on what can be done to stop the explosion from happening.
Too late. It happened. Now, we await the aftermath. And we wonder what we’ve done.