Movies Science Pop Culture

Happy World Asteroid Day – why we are so obsessed with asteroids?

“This is the Earth, at a time when dinosaurs roamed a lush & fertile planet. But the piece of rock just six miles wide changed all that. It hit with the force of ten thousand nuclear weapons. A trillion tons of dirt & rock hurtled into the atmosphere creating a suffocating blanket of dust the Sun was powerless to penetrate for a thousand years. It happened before, it will happen again, it’s just a question of when.”

Charlton Heston’s deep voice narration fades into the dramatic strains of Armageddon’s opening score. As a fiery blanket of peril creeps across Earth’s surface, Heston’s last words echo an ominous warning – that a threat to our existence is near and alive.

However, Michael Bay’s 1998 sci-fi film was not the first to tout asteroids as villainous purveyors of mass destruction. Cosmic disasters are a classic science fiction trope, with the portrayal of asteroid belts in pop culture dating back to the late 19th century. Notable early works include Edison’s Conquest of Mars (1898) by Garrett P. Serviss, in which a Thomas Edison-led armada runs into a massive gold asteroid. In addition to being a battleground for humans and martians, asteroids take up a wide variety of roles throughout science fiction and popular culture.

In honor of Asteroid Day held annually on June 30th (anniversary of the Tunguska Event), I bring forth a pressing question: Why are we so obsessed with asteroids?

Attempting to understand human obsessions from a psychological perspective is no easy task; take our society’s obsession with celebrity news, pimple-popping videos, or meme-able cats. Our collective interest in asteroids and cosmic disaster seems intertwined with marveling at, or fearing, the end of the world. Through disaster film after disaster comic, asteroids are continuously depicted as inevitable forces of destruction that will wipe out swaths of Earthen life. Writers dramatize the threat of asteroid impacts with reference to the infamous asteroid strike which occurred 66 million years ago, hypothesized to have created the Chixculub crater. The now widely accepted theory credits the Chixculub asteroid as the cause of the Cretaceous-Paleogene (K-Pg) mass extinction, or the end of non-avian dinosaurs. Combine a devastating mass extinction with patriotic, spacesuit-clad explorers, and you’re well on your way to crafting an addictive slice of science fiction.

Beyond film and fiction, our human obsession with asteroids also manifests itself through art. Have you ever come across a stunning NASA space image or simulation and felt your jaw physically drop? What about Armageddon paintings, apocalyptic art, or vintage sci-fi illustrations? Countless creatives have translated the K-Pg event into illustrations of a screeching tyrannosaurus rex running from a flaming, comet-like asteroid.

Space artist David A. Hardy took this intrigue to form his entire career, and to this day he is the “longest-established living space artist in the West, being first published in 1952”. I am particularly struck by the intensity of his gouache and watercolor paintings for SF and Fantasy covers; the scenes he paints invite the viewer to become a sort of visual explorer to his strange landscapes.  

In addition, asteroids make frequent appearances in music and miscellaneous forms of entertainment. On your preferred music streaming platform, find The Asteroids Galaxy Tour, a Danish pop band with spacey beats, or Asteroid, a psychedelic rock band with explosive sound. The 1980’s two-player board game Asteroid pits players against a mad scientist and the killer asteroid they have programmed to crash into (and destroy) the planet. On a similar note, the objective of the classic 1979 Asteroids video game is to fire at asteroids and saucers from a little spaceship. If abandoned musicals are your thing, check out Mr. President, There’s an Asteroid Headed Directly For the Earth: the Musical, by Rob Cantor and Rick Lax. Its catchy Overture begins with the lines: “You’re all gonna die / The world’s gonna end”, and ends with the titular “Mr. President, there’s an asteroid headed directly for the earth!”.

With scientific reality being so far removed from art and film depictions of asteroid impacts, it seems hasty to denote our asteroid obsession as just an obsession with the end of the world. I was tempted to view this through a memento mori lens, which translates from Latin into “Remember you will die”. Just like the skulls and decaying fruit prevalent in Dutch vanitas, perhaps asteroids and their visual interpretations remind us of our own mortality. I think of this especially in relation to how humans would have no defense against a massive asteroid making a beeline for the earth, and how the ‘asteroid peril’ represented in sci-fi media is realer and more inevitable than one may think.

Though I won’t be subscribing to tabloids newscasting daily killer asteroid predictions, I will be revisiting songs in which our asteroid obsessions have made star appearances (for example, Michael Jackson’s Planet Earth/Earth Song).