Would you kill to stop an asteroid panic? I asked the creators of Salvation

In six months, a large asteroid is going to hit Earth. It's likely that everyone is going to die. Only a few people know about it, and they are desperately trying to stop it from slamming into the planet. That's the premise of Salvation, a new suspense thriller TV series premiering on CBS this Wednesday, July 12, 2017. Carla and I got an early look at the first episode, and we both loved it for the premise, sense of urgency, moral issues explored, and hints that more is unfolding than meets the eye. Our friends Elizabeth Kruger and Craig Shapiro created the show, so I grabbed them for a quick interview to ask them about what went into making a series that deals with people secretly trying to save humankind.

Mark: What's the conflict in Salvation?

Liz: An asteroid is going to collide with Earth in 186 days, and if our government and/or others don't come up with new technology to solve the problem, we're going to go the way of the dinosaurs. Adding to that conflict is other countries that are also looking into how to solve the problem, and what do you do if the world itself cannot agree on how to solve a problem? And if you solve it on one side of the world what problems does it create for the other side of the world?

Mark: So if the different countries' solutions don't necessarily work in harmony with each other, they could actually conflict with each other.

Craig: Well sure. This research just came out last week, and I find it so interesting — that asteroid that killed all the dinosaurs, had it landed 30 seconds earlier or 30 seconds later there would still be dinosaurs on Earth. It just hit in the exact wrong spot. So we're in the same situation here, which is, what if you could control the asteroid, by slowing it down a thousandth of one percent so it hits 10 minutes later? You could really control where it ends up. That means you've got an unbelievably powerful weapon at your disposal, and nobody can stop you from using it unless they have similar technology.

Mark: So one country could save itself at the expense of another continent going kablooey.

Craig: That's right, and you know what? That doesn't necessarily make you a … if you had that moral choice, that's not an easy choice to make, because there's not necessarily a right answer.

It's like Scylla and Charybdis, the Greek myth. If you could sacrifice a few to save almost everybody, maybe you should do it. I mean, Odysseus actually chose to sacrifice the few so that everybody else could live. If you go the other way you could lose the whole thing.

Mark: I saw the pilot episode of Salvation and I loved it, and one of the things that you learn is that the people who do know about the asteroid, absolutely don't want the public to know, and they'll go to almost any length to keep word from getting out.

Liz: Yeah.

Mark: Are you just running off your instincts, since you know that it would be a bad thing if the public found out, or did you do some research about how the government handles impending disaster control?

Liz: Well, a little of both. We talked it through, we read a lot of different scenarios, and ultimately we thought, okay, if the government gets this information, then all the people on this planet are going to act as if every day is their last. It would create chaos and since no one could do anything to stop it anyway, it makes good sense that the government would not release this information.

Craig: What value is there in freaking everyone out, because it doesn't help solve the problem?

Liz: Strategically, they need the masses to remain calm because they can't start pouring resources into the world running amok. So we ultimately believed that the government doing this was not just paternalism, but that it actually makes sense in the context of the story. Our characters come around to understanding the value of this.

A related question we explore is: if you have this secret, would you tell your loved ones? If you worked for the Pentagon like [Salvation character] Grace Barrows does, and you had this information, if you tell your friends or family members, you've destroyed their life. So is there a value in keeping the secret from them if they can't do anything about it?

Craig: It's like the Matrix. Once you know, you can't unknow it.

Mark: We are friends, so I know that you have the same feeling I do about governments doing things in secret — we don't like it. But in certain cases like this one, it absolutely is harmful to let everyone know that there's going to be an asteroid that's going to hit Earth and probably kill everybody.

Liz: We looked at it from a philosophical perspective, and we have the characters really examine this.

Craig: Wrestle with it.

Liz: Because carrying the burden, as one of our characters says, sucks. Everyone around you is living in blissful ignorance and they're allowed to be happy every day, but you know the secret and you can't enjoy the time you have left. So we wrestled with it, and we thought yeah, transparency as an ideal, absolutely, but when you think about the ramifications, and whether it's selfish or selfless to be transparent in the situation … we looked at it from a philosophical perspective, not a political one.

Mark: So these government agents in the show who are assassinating the people who know about it — I thought of them as the bad guys — but now I'm thinking, they're like the people in the basement that have to make the decision to smother the crying baby so the Nazis upstairs don't discover everyone hiding below.

Liz: Well, I don't want to give away who dies in the pilot, but the story has tentacles, as you will discover, that go much further than the asteroid problem.

Craig: The show does ask the question in many different ways and forms, which is: if you knew that the world might be coming to an end, what would you, personally, be willing to do to try to save it? People in the show are going to be tested in ways that they never would have imagined, but they find themselves either rising to places they never knew they could go, or flaming out. Failing.

Liz: Right, and also questions we asked ourselves are, okay, so you, Mark Frauenfelder, or me, Liz Kruger, we've never killed a person, but what if you had to kill a person in order to save the world?

Mark: Right.

Liz: Suddenly all the rules change. You've gotta do things you didn't think you were capable of. It's like being in war, I guess, where suddenly all the rules change. But the thing that's super complicated about the show is the rules change, but not everyone knows they've changed, so now if you do something that goes outside the rules, you may still be held to the consequences for breaking those rules, even though you know that you had to do this in order to-

Craig: And to the rest of society you would just seem like you've gone crazy.

Mark: You've done a lot of research into asteroids. Do you think that, with today's technology, we would could mitigate the harm of an asteroid on a crash collision path with Earth?

Liz: Well, if you found out about it soon enough in order to combat the problem. One problem is that while we know about 90% of near-earth objects, there's 5-10% that we don't know about. There was an asteroid in 1908 that hit a remote area in Siberia. It came in with the force of many nuclear bombs and devastated a huge area. If it had been a populated area –

Craig: It would have wiped out a city.

Liz: That's right, and so that threat's out there. There are people working on the same kinds of technology that we are dealing with in this story — gravity tractors and kinetic impactors. In Salvation we take the developing technology and advance it.

Craig: We treat it like the Manhattan Project? They always theoretically thought they could build a bomb to save the world if they had to, but they didn't put the resources into it, because they didn't have to, and technology wasn't there yet. But when faced with essentially an extinction level event like World War II, they threw all the resources they could at it, and they did 10 years of work in two years to figure out how the bomb would work and get it in production.

We're in the same situation here — we're taking technologies that are theoretical right now or just in the testing phase, and moving them ahead. There was an article yesterday on space.com about NASA launching a kinetic impactor to see what happens.

Mark: What's a kinetic impactor?

Craig: If they launch something at an asteroid that basically slams into it, how much can it change the trajectory? We're also looking at a gravity tractor, which uses gravitational pull from a probe's own mass to create a tiny gravitational field. If you could do this far enough in advance of the impending impact — months, preferably years — you could theoretically pull an asteroid or comet off course.

Liz: Just enough to deflect it so that it doesn't hit Earth.

Craig: Right. So all these things are theoretically happening right now. We are speeding up the science because frankly we have to or we're all going to die. We're also working on other kinds of really interesting technology.

Liz: Have you ever heard of the EmDrive, the electromagnetic drive?

Craig: If you go look it up, you'll be like, "Holy shit, this is unbelievable." It's going to change space travel if they can get it to work.

Liz: It's theoretical right now, but people claim that they've seen it work.

Craig: It's propulsion without fuel. It defies Newton's third law, which is why some people say it's impossible, but other people say, "Well, it works, we just don't know yet why it works." It's not very big. It uses electromagnets powered by tiny solar panels, and it produces a minuscule amount of thrust, like one Newton. But if you do this in space, you will be continuously accelerating forever. The speculation is you could be at the Moon in like four hours, and you could be at Mars in like four months. So this is unbelievable if they could make it work. Supposedly the Chinese are ready to try it in space now, and there have been experiments here on Earth.

Liz: NASA did a paper on it, so we've taken the EmDrive and that concept and our characters are advancing the technology.

Mark: We've been talking about the science in the show, but that's not really what it's about, is it?

Craig: We treat the science seriously, but it's really about the human endeavor to beat the asteroid, and not so much the nuts and bolts. In the end we're saying, "This is a very human side to science, and we must problem-solve at the highest level that humans can problem-solve if we're going to save the planet." We've spent a lot of time trying to make the science believable and realistic, and interesting, and fun, but mostly just very human.

Pictured: Santiago Cabrera. Photo: Ben Mark Holzberg/CBS ©2017 CBS Broadcasting Inc. All Rights Reserved