by Shane L. Larson
We are perhaps the most audacious species to ever inhabit the Earth. Our audacity is not defined by our weird physical features (as perhaps defines our cousin the duck-billed platypus), nor defined by our strange physical geometry (as perhaps defines our cousins the octopuses), nor defined by abbreviated or extenuated oddities in our life cycles (as perhaps defines our cousins the mayflies or cicadas respectively).
The existence of modern humans as a distinct biological species on planet Earth goes back around 200,000 years. At the time modern humans appear in the fossil record, we were just as smart and as strong as we are now, but we hadn’t become a society yet. The oldest known artifacts of human manufacture are roughly 100,000 years old (shell jewelry), and the oldest bit of recorded history goes back only 5500 years, to the time of the ancient Sumerians and the Early Dynastic era of Egypt. Humans have been on Earth a long time, just existing. Living off the land much as the other plants and animals do. For most of that time, we’ve been aware of the sky over our heads. We’ve stared at the Moon and stars and wondered what they are. But the idea of visiting those otherplaces in the Cosmos was the purview of madmen and addle-minded fools.
But all that changed in 1957 when we started shooting rockets into outer space. Soaring aloft on harnessed tongues of fire redefined what was crazy and what was possible. Voyages to other worlds was suddenly within our grasp, if only we could build a machine to take us there. And we did.
The principle requirement for flying to the sky, beyond having the audacious impulse to do so?
Perseverance. Throwing machines into space is hard. To build a machine capable of sailing the void requires solving a lot of problems. One at a time. The race is long, but in the end, the product of your imagination and sweat stands realized on the launch pad. Girded in vaporous fumes and draped with umbilicals and support arms, it awaits those last few moments.
Three… Two… One…
The great machine lifts off, straining to reach the shallows of the sea of space, ready to embark on a long journey for which it was uniquely designed. Power, fuel, sensors, computers, and memorized instructions — all accustomed to a journey far from the tradewinds of Earth, sailing in the vastness between the worlds.
Yesterday we witnessed a milestone in one of these epic voyages, when the European Space Agency probe Rosetta dropped its lander Philae to descend onto the surface of the Comet 67P/Churyumov–Gerasimenko. Philae had been carried by Rosetta for ten years across the void from Earth, like a parent carrying a sleeping child. Ten long years, all alone in the night.
The ultimate goal of this long sojourn to a tumbling hulk of rock and ice? To understand the nature of comets — what are they made of, what is their internal structure, how are they assembled and put together, and how do they hold up? These are all questions about the comet, to be sure, but they are the cloth draped over the true quest: we want to know about water. One of the ideas about the water on Earth is that it came from comets, the left-over detritus from the formation of the solar system. Water is the central player in the development and sustainability of life on Earth. The quest to understand this comet is part of the much larger quest to understand where we came from.
Philae, after a 7 hour drop from 10 kilometers above the comet, soft-landed on the surface. For the first time in human history, we landed on the surface of a comet. And you and I were alive to see it. We know now that it wasn’t the end of the adventure. Philae BOUNCED off the surface, at a mere 38 cm/s, but it bounced and didn’t come back down for nearly two hours. But come down it did, pulled by the weak, inexorable draw of gravity. It bounced a second time, remaining airborne for 7 minutes. Now, it is at rest, somewhere on the foreboding surface of 67P/Churyumov–Gerasimenko. We’re talking with Philae, but still trying to understand where it is and what its status is.
Exploration is about discovering beauty, in experiencing the grandeur of places unknown. There are few places that show us the stark and desolate beauty we are now seeing from the surface of 67P/Churyumov–Gerasimenko — it is a barren and altogether alien landscape that you and I are witnessing for the first time. But exploration is also about seeing ourselves and our own home and our intense problems anew. If you are not moved by the great achievement of your fellow humans, if you can’t see what the big deal is with a rock in space, know that this mission is still for you and in some way is still about the things here on Earth that you do care about.
There are some who are not moved by such a great endeavour. That’s fine; some of us are not impressed by poetry, or fine French cooking, or NASCAR, or the designated hitter rule in baseball. But that does not diminish the accomplishment — we should all revel in what our fellow citizens have overcome and accomplished. They demonstrated the perseverance to solve one of the most complicated problems you can imagine — throwing a robot into space, having it survive for 10 years, and then landing a probe on the completely unknown, unseen, and hostile surface of another place. That should impress on you that these scientists and engineers are experts at solving hard problems. Someday you are going to rely on them to build a pacemaker that will survive inside your body for the remaining decades of your life. Someday they are going to build the autonomous car that can drive you to work. Someday they are going to repair the aging bridge in your town before it collapses under the burden of morning traffic.
There are some who question whether we needed to spend a billion Euros to voyage into space. That’s fine; it is right to question what we do with the pool of money that we as a society grudgingly set aside for great endeavours like this. But don’t let the idea of waste fool you; all of that money was spent here on Earth, not on Comet 67P/Churyumov–Gerasimenko. It paid for a miner to extract titanium ore from the ground; it paid for an electrician to wire the power harness that kept Philae alive for 10 years; it paid for a machinist to make a precision mounting bracket on a rocket engine; it paid a truck driver to transport the liquid oxygen to the launch facility in French Guiana; it paid for an engineer to design efficient solar cells that (in this case) can work for 10 years in the vacuum of space; it paid for a student intern who learned to program guidance computers in a basement in Germany, but is now going to use that knowledge in medical school to program micro-precision surgical robots. And a hundred thousand other parts and people.
We sent Rosetta and Philae into the darkness to be our eyes, to brave the dangers on the surface of an unknown rock 600 million kilometers from home. Why did we do it?
Not just because we can. Not just because we want to know the unknown. Not just because we are exploring.
We did it to remind ourselves — to prove to ourselves — that the problems we encounter can be solved. Nothing is unsolvable. We can do anything with enough imagination, dedication, and work.
We can land on the surface of a comet. That’s Deep Blue hero stuff. That is the audacity of our species.