On Saturday, one day and eleven time zones away from the blast, the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History’s meteorite collection was a magnet for the newly fascinated. A volunteer at the information desk said he’d been directing visitors to the collection all morning. Knots of them gathered in front of the gnarled chunks that have previously peppered the Earth, comparing their iron reality to the arresting images from Russia.
“Oh man, I’ve watched the videos about a hundred times,” said Jon Lee, a musician who was viewing the white-hot flash once more on his smartphone. “I can’t get over the sound it made.”
He stood before one of the collection’s prized specimens, the dishwasher-sized Goose Lake meteorite that slammed long ago into an unpeopled California. “I don’t want that thing falling on my head.”
On an earlier Earth, it would have taken months for reports of even a massive meteoric strike to circle the globe. In 1908, when a mega-meteoroid flattened a swath of forest in central Russia, eyewitness accounts spread at the stately pace of steamships and scholarship. In 1992, it was thought remarkable that when the “Peekskill Fireball” streaked across the mid-Atlantic sky on a fall Friday, glimpses were caught by 14 video cameras, most of them held by high school football fans.
This time, thanks to the unblinking phone, security and dashboard cameras that were ever-present even in the Ural Mountains, the whole world got to be a same-day witness to the fire in the sky. What used to emerge over time as a public phenomenon was absorbed, digested and discussed within hours.
By Saturday, more than 200 YouTube videos of the Friday explosion had logged millions of views, #meteorite was trending on Twitter and scientists had already held Web seminars on “the Chelyabinsk Event.” Conspiracy theories — It was an American weapon! It was a UFO! — were well developed in the kookier corners of the Internet. And schools had already incorporated Chelyabinsk into the curriculum.
“They had us watch it on Foxnews.com,” said Jason Pennypacker, whose teachers interrupted his middle school science class in New Egypt, N.J., to bring students some instant astronomical history. “It was so cool.”
Jason’s father, a retired state patrolman, said he was both taken aback and humbled by the images of such unfathomable power detonating so close to the populated surface of the planet.
“I can’t remember any time in my life seeing something like that broadcast on TV,” said Larry Pennypacker, 58, who made a point of bringing his family to view the Smithsonian meteorites Saturday. “It’s like science fiction come to life. It’s easy to see why people might have thought it was the end of the world.”
With the Russia blast hitting just as mankind was looking in another part of the sky for an asteroid fly-by a mere 17,000 miles away, the once-vague threat of an Earth-crushing impact seemed to gain some real-world urgency. A local radio station offered advice on checking meteorite coverage in your homeowners policy. Commodities traders nudged up the price of zinc after Friday’s blast took the roof off a zinc factory. Meteorites, already blamed for destroying the dinosaurs, were now messing with the markets.
“It makes you wonder what would happen if we took a really direct hit,” marveled Pennypacker. “Even with all our radar and missile-detection systems, we had no warning.”
The prospect of another sucker punch from the asteroid belt provoked a policy response from Stuart Burns, a congressional staffer visiting the meteorite room with his wife and two children.
“It really represents the importance of investing in space,” said Burns, who lives in Fairfax City and works for the member of Congress representing Cape Canaveral and the Florida Space Coast. “We need to focus NASA on looking outward.”
His 12-year-old son William, rubbing the pocked iron surface of the Goose Lake meteorite, asked if pieces of space rock were for sale.
“Can you buy a meteorite?” Burns asked, looking at his wife. “I don’t know. We’ll look in the gift shop.”