On Wednesday, the human race landed on a comet.
It's easy to type that sentence, but the simple and stunning reality is so amazing that it sends a shiver up my spine. The human race landed on a comet! More prosaically, a robotic mission by the European Space Agency called Rosetta set down a small lander, called Philae, on the surface of Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko, following a ten year, four billion mile voyage. Never before has a space exploration mission been able to study a comet so closely. It promises to answer a huge number of questions we have about the big, dirty snowballs spiraling around our Sun and, as science goes, give us an even larger number of new questions.
There was drama aplenty. Philae's landing system failed, causing the plucky robot to initially bounce back off the surface and come down in a different and thus far unknown location. It ended up lying in the shadow of a cliff, preventing its solar panels from receiving sufficient sunlight and dooming its batteries to a quick demise. The engineers and scientists running the Rosetta mission desperately tried to find a solution, while racing against time to retrieve the critical scientific data before the batteries gave out. The brave little robot eventually did fall silent, but not before delivering enough science back to the European team to completely revolutionize our understanding of comets.
I find all this utterly fascinating and enthralling, but then I have always been absorbed by space exploration. Years ago, in what seems like a previous life, I engaged in a quixotic effort to create a political action committee designed to promote space exploration (it didn't work, sadly). To me, the quest to explore space draws on deep-seated, even primal, human emotions that have been hard-wired into us by evolution. It's the same thing that drove Ferdinand Magellan to attempt the circumnavigation of the planet, that drove, the Montgolfier brothers to soar upwards in their balloons, Meriweather Lewis and William Clark to explore the American West, and a generation of hardy explorers to risk their lives to reach the North and South Poles of the Earth.
James Cook, perhaps the greatest explorer who ever lived, put it best when he said, "Ambition leads me not only farther than any other man has been before me, but as far as I think it possible for man to go."
My question is simply this: why isn't every person enthralled by space exploration? Right now, even as I type this blog entry, two robot rovers, Curiosity and Opportunity, are scurrying across the face of Mars, while a veritable armada of orbiting robots send by many different nations circle overhead. The enormous Cassini orbiter are spiraling around Saturn, revolutionizing our understanding of the most beautiful planet in the Solar System. The New Horizons mission is en route to Pluto, while the Messenger mission continues its exploration of Mercury. The Dawn spacecraft, powered by a revolutionary ion engine, is moving through the asteroid belt. There are lots of exciting things happening in our Solar System these days.
We live in the greatest age of exploration and discovery since the 18th Century. Anyone with an Internet connection and an ounce of curiosity can follow the adventures of these intrepid robotic spacecraft, sharing in the drama and the excitement of discovery. Why, then, do so many people choose to waste their time watching crude reality television shows or playing frivolous computer games? You wouldn't choose to eat a cheap fast food meal when you could eat in a three Michelin starred restaurant, would you?
The Rosetta-Philae mission to Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko is a reminder of what the human race can accomplish when we rise above the foul inanity that characterizes so much of the modern world and try to fulfill our real potential. It's worth celebrating.