This is an artist rendition of the Pioneer 10 spac
So November 12th 2014 goes down as a historic day for space exploration, and in particular for European operations in space. Yes, having travelled more than six billion kilometres, Philae, the robotic European Space Agency lander that accompanied the Rosetta spacecraft, successfully landed on its target Comet 67P, which orbits the sun at speeds of up to 135,000km/h.
More than ten years after departing the Earth, the ESA’s goal – or at least the first stages of its goal – has been accomplished. And it was by no means certain to succeed.

Given that it wasn’t long ago that some commentators were talking about the diminishing of space exploration endeavors, it seems on the contrary that these are exciting, groundbreaking times for our study of space. While NASA might’ve in recent years been rethinking its scope and direction, the European Space Agency, international endeavors and as time goes on also space programmes in countries like China and India will push space exploration further. It’s the truly international efforts – of which the Rosetta spacecraft can be counted – that might be the key to the future of human advancement into space, as opposed to the traditional nation-state endeavors that once characterised the ‘space race’.

I, like countless of us, was fascinated – if baffled – by space exploration from an early age; from watching the live news coverage of the Challenger tragedy (I was five or six years old at the time and watching it with my mother) to learning all about the Moon Landings, the Apollo missions, Yuri Gagarin, the Soviet ‘Space Dogs’ and the Russian Cosmonauts, Mariner, the Voyager space-craft (which still blows my mind), to those landmarks of my own adult lifetime such as the Mars probes, the Curiosity Rover, and of course MIR and the international space station.

The story of the human journey into space has been a fascinating one, subject to intense competition, spectacular failures, breathtaking triumphs, loss and tragedy, controversy, and images and moments-in-time that will resonate for generations. And from ‘Earth Rise’ and Neil Armstrong’s first wobbly steps on the Lunar surface to the extraordinary Voyager images of the Outer Planets and the sight of Philae landing on Comet 67P, it’s a story that’s still unfolding and will continue to unfold far beyond our lifetimes.

It’s remarkable to think about all of the nonsense that goes on on this planet – from wars, religious sectarianism, corporate greed and exploitation to daytime television and Nickelback – and then think that at the same time the pioneers of our time are sending robots into space, landing on comets, exploring Mars and so on. It’s like two separate Earths; one staring into the dirt and one gazing out into the cosmos. Yet perversely we inhabit a culture in which great celebrity and coverage is afforded to many people of mediocre substance and no meaningful contribution to the human experience, while great minds and pioneers in fields spanning science, medicine, technology and human expansion very rarely end up as household names. I’m always reminded of the fact that most people don’t know the name of the scientist who found the cure to small-pox and thus eradicated a major disease and saved millions of lives and yet most of us have heard of Kim Kardashian and Kanye West. His name was Donald Henderson, by the way.


There was a time of course where pioneers did attain great coverage and were widely celebrated, from Albert Einstein to Yuri Gagarin. Of course I’m not suggesting that people involved in the space programmes should be on the cover of Vanity Fair (and I’m sure they’d be horrified at the prospect anyway), only highlighting the disparity in our culture between who we choose to celebrate in popular mediums (relative to their contributions) and who we largely ignore (relative to their contributions).

Having said that, these things may tend to equalise over time; future history is more likely to afford greater coverage to our present space pioneers and to those at the forefront of scientific and technological breakthroughs than to the kinds of people broadly garnering the lion’s share of public attention at this time.

After all, we remember Celsus, Socrates, Livvy and the like, and we don’t tend to remember the pantomime performers or gossip queens of the same eras. Just a thought.

At any rate, the remarkable success (so far) of the Rosetta operation has garnered a great deal of international excitement and it does so at a time that may serve to re-ignite enthusiasm for space exploration in broader culture. There was some negative speak about space exploration after the unfortunate accident a week or so ago involving the Virgin Galactic shuttle. But the fact is there have always been stumbling blocks, failures and sad human losses in the history of space exploration; as I said earlier, I vividly remember watching the Challenger tragedy on TV, it being one of the most vivid memories of my childhood. But that loss of life didn’t stop space endeavors, even though there must have been people at the time believing it would, or should, have. Yet beyond that point we’ve gone on to put people into space for months at a time, with people literally living off-planet.

One wonders, however, if the idea of manned space exploration would be better shelved for the next several decades until the safety of human beings in space can be fully guaranteed. Which wouldn’t necessarily halt the advancement of space exploration, as yesterday’s landmark accomplishment demonstrates. We don’t need manned missions in order to explore Mars, which is currently being explored remotely by a roving robot. And no manned mission could ever have given us the kind of extraordinary data and footage that something like the Voyager craft did. Robot technology and advanced probes seem like the viable (immediate) future of space exploration, with human missions something to be worked on and prepared over a longer period of time. That seems like it is probably the view held by NASA and major space programmes anyway.

Without doubt space exploration will continue and we are going to be sending better and better equipped things out beyond the Earth; at the same time our robotics industries and technologies will inevitably grow and evolve at an accelerated pace over the next decade-plus. Logically therefore those two areas of technological development will be poised to unfold hand-in-hand, developing shared aspirations.

The immense potential for discovery through this current Rosetta operation doesn’t just concern new knowledge about the nature of comets or the origins of life on Earth; but will help improve scientific models for the Solar System and a better understanding of how a planet becomes habitable. The comet’s interior holds vital information concerning the initial composition of the Solar System from when it was formed 4.5 billion years ago. 


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