Spaceflight Insider

OPINION: ESA’s comet landing highlights a public accustomed to less

Rosetta ESA European Space Agency Philae Lander Comet 67P photo credit ESA posted on SpaceFlight Insider

While ESA's achievement this past week should be applauded, the fact is clear that we should be further along that we are. Image Credit: ESA

On Nov. 12, 2014, history was made. The Philae lander detached from the European Space Agency’s Rosetta spacecraft and landed on Comet 67P, or Churyumov-Gerasimenko. This was the culmination of a space project decades in the making. The Rosetta spacecraft was launched on an Ariane 5 rocket on Mar. 2, 2004, from the Guiana Space Center in Khouru in French Guiana. During its long mission, Rosetta flew by two small asteroids and approached the orbit of Jupiter using solar cells as its main power source. With some 2,000 people assisting in the mission, Rosetta is a triumph for the European Space Agency (ESA ) and the world.

Upon confirmation that Philae had landed on Comet 67P, Stephan Ulamec, Philae Lander Manager, announced, “We’re on the comet.” Whether deliberately or accidentally, his words echoed the iconic words of Neil Armstrong on July 20, 1969: “Houston, Tranquillity Base here. The Eagle has landed.” Comet 67P is much further away than the Moon, and Rosetta had a longer, more arduous journey than the primitive Apollo 11 spacecraft in that long-ago decade—yet the landing on a comet has failed to engage the world to nearly the extent that Apollo 11 did.

There has been a lot of media attention paid to the Rosetta mission, and it’s always nice to see journalists and correspondents devote their airtime to space activities. And of course all the space enthusiasts are busy posting the latest photos from the comet and expressing their congratulations—as they should. But all the attention feels a little forced.

ESA celebrates the triumph of landing on a comet--but is such celebration warranted? Photo Credit: ESA

ESA celebrates the triumph of landing on a comet–but is such celebration warranted? Photo Credit: ESA

Landing on a comet is an important step forward. And in its own way, the Philae landing was as dramatic and hair-raising as any manned mission—the harpoons which were meant to anchor the lander in place did not fire, meaning that even as ESA personnel celebrated their achievement, the lander bounced a kilometer off the surface before landing lopsided in a hilly terrain where the solar panels may not receive enough sunlight to recharge its batteries. Yet it is doing science.

Eight of its ten experiments are operating and beaming data back via the orbiting Rosetta mothership. The ESA has decided, since the craft is not anchored, that it would be too risky to use the experiment that would sink a drill 8 inches (20cm.) into the comet’s surface. It’s also feared that extending the Multi-Purpose Sensor for Surface and Subsurface Science (Mupus) would destabilize the lander.

Yet space highlights like this, and the brief giddiness that follow, have become more-or-less “routine.” Various countries have become very good at landing robots on planets and moons. There’s instant coverage of the landing, shots of smiling strangers shaking hands, and then life goes on. Scientific American or will provide mission highlights for those who are interested. But they are not iconic, world-changing achievements.

And the reason is simple. There are no crews.

Few people could name the first unmanned spacecraft to land on the Moon (Luna 2). Yet everyone knows the name of Neil Armstrong. Perhaps the name of the Viking lander, the first spacecraft to successfully land on Mars (technically the first craft to land on the Red Planet was the USSRs Mars-3 – which operated for 14.5 seconds), is known to a fair percentage of people, not least because of humanity’s ongoing love affair with the Red planet, but nothing fires the imagination quite like the vision of human beings forging a path into the unknown.

Illustration of Philae's initial landing and bounce to its possible final landing spot. Image Credit: Ian O'Neill

Illustration of Philae’s initial landing and bounce to its possible final landing spot. Image Credit: Ian O’Neill

These unmanned missions are important. They provide invaluable data that will keep scientists busy for many years. But they are stepping stones. Without the crewed missions to follow, their value has to be questioned. Like everything else in space exploration, they’re path finding steps into the black. They’re important accomplishments, yes, but they’re bits and pieces of a jigsaw puzzle that we’re just not bothering to put together.

It’s been 55 years since Luna-2 impacted with the Moon, 50 years since Ranger 7 transmitted the first photograph of the lunar surface, 38 years since the first Viking landing on Mars. And yet it’s been 42 years since any human being has left low Earth orbit (LEO). Without human follow-up missions, the unmanned surveys of Mars, Venus, asteroids and comets are of little practical value. Knowledge for the sake of knowledge is a fine thing, and curiosity is one of the things that make us human, but why do we continue to take small steps without attempting giant leaps?

Rather than congratulating ESA, NASA, China and Russia on all those unmanned landings…and then moving on to other things…why not say, “That’s a good first step—what next?” Are we really that impressed with the Philae landing, or are we simply pretending to be impressed because there’s just nothing else going on? And because loudly applauding every achievement in space shows political support for those next big steps that we know aren’t actually coming, or at least not coming anytime soon.

In the Christopher Nolan epic, Interstellar, a sad future is painted for mankind. Humanity has focused its efforts on raising crops as the “blight” makes Earth ever-more unlivable. Just as the U.S. did in the 1960s, in order to beat the Russians to the Moon – humanity finally “gets it” and realizes that we must explore space for our survival.

This is what awaits us. Rather than treat space as some cool “event” like a rock concert – it must be treated as something pivotal to our very survival – because it is. As this author has noted before, we are on a planet whose habitable life is on the decline, all the while our population increases exponentially.

orion-cape-rollout-Kennedy Space Center KSC Cape Canaveral Air Force Station Space Launch Complex 37 LMCO Lockheed Martin photo posted on SpaceFlight Insider

Although NASA is making progress on its newest crew-rated spacecraft, Orion, the agency has been forced to slow roll its efforts due to a lack of funding. Photo Credit: Lockheed Martin

It is in our nature to want to focus on the short term issues – rather than address the long-term problems. The world’s space programs have been forced to get by with minimal resources – one day – we will all come to regret that.

But why wait for “one day?” Interstellar intoned a poem over and over again – it is one that the space community should take to heart. There is one emotion the current state of our industry should inspire – rage.

We are going gently into the “good night” mentioned in that poem. We are accepting less and less in terms of space efforts. Rather than traveling to other worlds, we accepted an orbital space plane. Now? We hope commercial companies can achieve the task of sending crews to orbit as NASA attempts to complete vague missions with no clear long-term objectives.

Rosetta's Philae lander is safely on the surface of comet 67P as seen in the initial CIVA images. Image Credit: ESA posted on SpaceFlight Insider

Missions such as Rosetta, should serve as path finders for crews as they travel ever deeper into the cosmos. Image Credit: ESA

Who is to blame for this decline. Simple. We are. We fight internecine battles over ever-diminishing funds, tearing each other down with the ferociousness of hyenas who have just brought down a gazelle. We tell ourselves it is either one of the other. We work to break the backs – of those with whom we should work to forge friendships in the name of some cult of personality, from being set in our ways – or out of plain spite.

What could we accomplish if, instead of fighting each other – we stood shoulder-to-shoulder? Where would we be if, instead of accepting the scraps doled out by politicians – we demanded the future we deserve? While ESA’s accomplishments this past week should be applauded and while Nolan’s space epic is a must-see – both should cause one emotion to smolder within us – rage.

We should be further along than we are now. International crews should have already traveled to Mars. Our robotic explorers should have shown the way – and we should have followed. Instead? We sit on our couches, watching the antics of pawn brokers and duck hunters, gossiping about Kim Kardashian’s latest photo spread.

We need to put down the remote. We need to work with those we have placed on the opposing side – and we need to fight the slow-roll backwards that is taking place. We need to cease the “new” “old” nonsense and realize that what we need is “NowSpace” – as in we need to be developing our space capabilities “now” – not when we are afraid of being eclipsed by a rival super power or when we are threatened with a disaster or extinction.

Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rage at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Interstellar-Cooper Paramount Pictures image posted on SpaceFlight Insider

In “Interstellar” humanity has given up on space exploration and schools teach children that the Moonlandings were a hoax. Image Credit: Paramount

Though wise men at their end know dark is right,
Because their words had forked no lightning they
Do not go gentle into that good night.

Good men, the last wave by, crying how bright
Their frail deeds might have danced in a green bay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Wild men who caught and sang the sun in flight,
And learn, too late, they grieved it on its way,
Do not go gentle into that good night.

Grave men, near death, who see with blinding sight
Blind eyes could blaze like meteors and be gay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

And you, my father, there on the sad height,
Curse, bless me now with your fierce tears, I pray.
Do not go gentle into that good night.
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.


The views expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author and do not, necessarily reflect those of  SpaceFlight Insider

This article was edited on Nov. 16, 2014 at 1:43 p.m. EST to reflect actual first spacecraft to land on Mars

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Collin R. Skocik has been captivated by space flight since the maiden flight of space shuttle Columbia in April of 1981. He frequently attends events hosted by the Astronaut Scholarship Foundation, and has met many astronauts in his experiences at Kennedy Space Center. He is a prolific author of science fiction as well as science and space-related articles. In addition to the Voyage Into the Unknown series, he has also written the short story collection The Future Lives!, the science fiction novel Dreams of the Stars, and the disaster novel The Sunburst Fire. His first print sale was Asteroid Eternia in Encounters magazine. When he is not writing, he provides closed-captioning for the hearing impaired. He lives in Atlantic Beach, Florida.

Reader Comments

Once we won the space race, the public was bored with Apollo. Once the first few shuttle flights were successful, the public became bored with shuttles – until people started dying in shuttles. Once the ISS was inhabited, actually maybe for most of its existence, the public does not care too much about ISS unless there is a crisis onboard or a political tiff with Russia to monger some fear. Man in space will always eventually be boring to the public after a few missions – whatever they are, especially if they take months to go someplace. Unless of course people start dying in space. If we launch a spacecraft – any spacecraft available now or in development – people will die from radiation effects before they arrive at any place interesting besides the Moon once beyond the protective magnetic field of Earth. It may be a race to die from radiation, or from the debilitating effects of micro-gravity – bone loss, muscle atrophy, foggy headedness, vision degradation on a mission duration to Mars and back. No one seems to be developing a manned spacecraft that has a spinning section to provide a gravity simulation to maintain our bodies. Maybe dizziness would be too hard to overcome. Now we can gather information thru telescopes at the speed of light as we sample the information streaming to us all the time from the whole universe. Once the probes get to the destination of interest, they send us information at the speed of light too. Meanwhile, we do not need to be worried about tons of food and water and oxygen to keep people alive in space during these missions as we snack while digesting the wonderful science related to us by the robots. Until we master the technology to travel faster in space, counter act the negative effects of the hostile space environment to man and machine in the long term. We are better off, in my opinion, to let robots collect samples and data while we develop the technology to make it practical and survivable to humans to travel beyond the Earth’s protective magnetic field for more than a few weeks. As far as human nature goes, we will always be creatures of relationship ahead of science. Hopefully we will learn to master our media technologies to enhance our culture instead of letting it remain a manipulative tool of power and profit at the expense of degrading our relationships within society.

Very well written, and raises a lot of valid points,,,but isnt it possible NASA has made space travel too seem to easy? The publics attention span is not great, and without dramatic headlines, no one really seems to care….

Just for information, the first spacecraft to land on Mars was the USSR’s Mars 3, which arrived at Mars on Dec. 3, 1971 althogh the lander operated on the surface of Mars for only 20 seconds before failing.

Hi Dave,
Thanks for that, we’ve edited the commentary to reflect actual events.
Sincerely and with kind regards, Jason Rhian – Editor, SpaceFlight Insider

I had high hopes for and I think Jason is a good editor. But pieces like this disappoint me. No facts and a lot of odd opinions. >>> “We’re on the comet.” Whether deliberately or accidentally, his words echoed the iconic words of Neil Armstrong on July 20, 1969: “Houston, Tranquillity Base here. The Eagle has landed.” <<< What? And it goes downhill from there. Lots of entertainment related tripe and nearly nothing related to real space work.

/ˈkämənˌterē/ noun

an expression of opinions or offering of explanations about an event or situation.

/əˈpinyən/ noun

a view or judgment formed about something, not necessarily based on fact or knowledge.

The very first word in the headline is “OPINION” the Op-Ed closes with the following: The views expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author and do not, necessarily reflect those of SpaceFlight Insider

I’m sorry you were confused about the nature of this opinion-based piece – but I don’t know how we could have explained its nature any more clearly than we already have.
Sincerely and with kind regards, Jason Rhian – Editor, SpaceFlight Insider

Jason! Brilliant!
We need a lot more of this kind of writing.
We have a choice. Either we get on with technological development, in which case our descendants will see and do and learn things that would make us so jealous it’s probably a good thing we won’t be around to see them doing their thing. Or, we condemn them to misery. Space is totally central to “sustainability”.
Here in NZ, the only people who talk about sustainability are the ones who think far too much money is being spent on space exploration. Huh? Or, perhaps, wtf?
Good on you, Jason, for saying what needs to be said.

Hi Kevin,
While I appreciate the kind words, this editorial was written by Collin Skocik.
Sincerely and with thanks, Jason Rhian – Editor, SpaceFlight Insider

Sorry Jason and Collin, I should have zoomed back up to the top!

It is interesting that the author considers robotic missions as smaller achievements, treated like “some cool event like a rock concert” by the media and the politicians, while the real thing to do is space are manned missions.

In outer space, be it on the moon or on a comet, robots can perform any scientific experiment with greater precision and far less resources than a man in a bulky spacesuit would. The scientific output of a mission like Rosetta or Curiosity is huge, while the scientific output of a mission like Apollo, however mind-striking it was, was much more limited. That is not surprising : the primary reason we sent men to the moon was to tell the Soviets we could do it, the scientific work performed up there was merely “just because”, so to speak. The same will hold for a manned mission to Mars. There is actually very little scientific value to send men to other planets. There are spinoff technologies, of course, but the amount of knowledge that will be gained from a manned mission will always be substantially lower than from a robotic mission of the same profile.

The main reason to send humans to other worlds is for national prestige (which may be viewed as a valid reason by some), but the cost of it is paramount, and could be invested into much more productive (non-manned) projects.

I am all for increasing the budget of NASA, or any space agency around the world for that matter, but as a (currently PhD’ing) physicist, I would prefer this money to be spent on actual science. If there is any space-related activity that is akin to “some cool event like a rock concert”, it is crewed exploration.

Alexandr Kister

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