The greatest journey of them all, or why we do need to explore space.

The Philae lander off to his rendez-vous with the Comet.  Source all rights reserved

The Philae lander off to his rendez-vous with the Comet.
Source all rights reserved

Today hasn’t been one of my most productive days at work, even for my own standards. The reason for this is quite simple: my mind was away from my job. Away from my desk, even away from this planet.

In facts, my mind was somewhere about half a billion km from London, still far off Jupiter, where the European Space Agency’s probe Rosetta was circuiting around a lone comet going by the sci-fi name 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko. I had my iPad out, Twitter open, BBC feed… the lot. Colleagues were treating me like a weirdo for celebrating that, at 16:03 GMT, news came from Germany that Philae, the little lander, had managed to complete the 10-hour journey from its mother ship, Rosetta, and had successfully landed on a comet. Half a billion km away from home, a distance so long that radio signals and light waves take half an hour to cover.

What’s the good in doing this, one might ask? Is it going to change the fact that Europe is sliding into deflation, or that loonies in Syria are beheading people, or that climate change is modifying the planet’s equilibriums? No, but that’s not the point.

Space exploration is necessary for a lot of practical reasons: for instance, it enables development (the US space programme gave us fuel cells, advanced solar power technologies, new materials, important medicine research, Velcro, David Bowie’s best hits).

It’s a good way to stimulate the economy by, for once, putting nerds into doing proper science rather than letting them loose into professions such as banking and, if you look at the alternatives, it’s also quite cheap. In 2009 NASA estimated that the whole Apollo programme, from Apollo 1 – fire included – to Apollo 17 to be approximately $170bn. To put things into perspective the US DoD’s appropriations for the Iraqi war between 2003 and 2013 amounted to $770bn. Or, the cost to rescue the world’s banks and insurance institutions after the Lehman Brothers meltdown was $1729bn. Bottom line = keeping engineers working in sheds on space programs is a lot more cost effective than letting them go downtown and put suits on.

Committing oneself to the exploration and the understanding of science, furthermore, is one of the noblest achievements humans can reach. Science has the potential to solve many of humanity’s issues from health to lack of food to access to clean water, and removing these issues lowers the chances of war (no progress appear to be made, though, for a cure against stupidity or to explain One Direction’s popularity). Science can help overcoming political barriers: as the new director of CERN, Fabiola Gianotti, said to BBC’s Storyville, the Geneva-based lab hosted Israeli and Arab scientists, Iranian and American researchers. The boffins popping the bubbly open in Darmstadt featured Germans, Italians, French, Brits, Spaniards: nationalities busily intent at killing each other 100 years ago, a time frame equal to the length of a sneeze in historic terms.

But finally, the reason why we should invest in space exploration, the reason why we should all crowd around Cape Canaveral for the first launch of the Orion capsule this December, it’s because, basically, it’s there.

Humans have been wired to migrate, explore, stick their noses where they should’t have sticked them and, in general, as a lot of questions. Space is the next America, the next Pole, the next Everest. It’s a stepping stone, a hell of one I’ll give you that, but – at the end of the day – it’s an obliged step on the path of our evolution. You can’t say “Thou shall not pass the atmosphere”: it’d be as daft as thinking that, past Gibraltar, only death was to be found.

I’ll close off by quoting one fine writer and explorer. It’s about climbing the world’s tallest mountain, an endeavour he paid the utmost price for, but a worthy one nonetheless.

“People ask me, ‘What is the use of climbing Mount Everest?’ and my answer must at once be, ‘It is of no use.’There is not the slightest prospect of any gain whatsoever. […] We shall not bring back a single bit of gold or silver, not a gem, nor any coal or iron… If you cannot understand that there is something in man which responds to the challenge of this mountain and goes out to meet it, that the struggle is the struggle of life itself upward and forever upward, then you won’t see why we go. What we get from this adventure is just sheer joy. And joy is, after all, the end of life. We do not live to eat and make money. We eat and make money to be able to live. That is what life means and what life is for.”
― George Mallory, Climbing Everest: The Complete Writings of George Mallory

I’d like to congratulate myself with the entire ESA Team behind Rosetta. This post is dedicated to them, may you inspire future generations with your example.

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9 Responses to The greatest journey of them all, or why we do need to explore space.

  1. omaira gill says:

    I thought I was the only one hopping around in excitement yesterday! Landing on a comet is the stuff that sci fi dreams are made of.


    • awtytravels says:

      You’re not alone, Omaira! I’ve just arrived at work and I spent a whopping 30 minutes – an eternity according to British standards – talking about this and the whole Apollo programme with two like-minded colleagues… There’s an army of space nerds around and we, to quote the Bible, are legion.


  2. richandalice says:

    Nice post. I have had the privilege of seeing several NASA rocket launches, including a Shuttle launch; it is a genuinely extraordinary, visceral experience that validates all of the excitement you are feeling about Rosetta/Philae.


    • awtytravels says:

      Thanks Richard! Seeing the Shuttle, or any launch for that matter, must be a sight not to be missed! Indeed I’m keeping my eyes on the SLS, I want to be there when it goes up in 2017.


  3. Michael says:

    Space exploration spun-off some great technology, but any technological development you spent such amounts on is bound to produce one or two useful gadgets. Therefore, I don’t see the spin-off value as a plus-point for space exploration. Personally, I think there are far more pressing needs here on Earth to spend money on. But if we do explore space, let us please do it without sending a useless sack of bones and body fluids along, shall we? There’s absolutely no need in sending humans to space and the precious cargo space can be used much better.


    • awtytravels says:

      You see, I don’t agree. Romantic, or philosophical, reason aside – the quest for the new frontier, exploration and so on – there are loads of improvements in our day-to-day life that we can thank the space exploration for, here’s just a small snippet.
      (I can add, for example, fire-resistant materials and ceramics, or medicines, or solar panels).
      The fact is that money spent on advanced scientific research is seldom wasted. Sure, one might think “what’s the purpose in investing billions in CERN?” and find more urgent needs for those monies but… hey, aren’t we interested in knowing if our physics, our understanding of the world, is valid or not?


      • Michael says:

        And I think investing billions in CERN is a terrible waste of resources. We sure are interested in all those things. I am also interested in eating caviar for breakfast every day, but I spend my money on buying milk for my daughter instead. CERN and space travel are caviar for breakfast on a global scale.


      • awtytravels says:

        Your opinion, Michael. I personally think, to use your analogy, that spending money on science projects like them is like investing in your education. Sure it won’t nourish you, but it’ll make you more intelligent. And in the long term, thanks to it you’ll be better off.

        I’m happy to have my taxes spent on such projects, a lot more than I am than knowing it goes into saving the bloody UK banking sector.


      • Michael says:

        I think that the return on investment of projects like manned space travel is rather depressing and that the money would be better spent on – indeed – education. In my view, there is absolutely no added value in putting a human in space. Its just ballast.


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