There is No Alternative

Success!

Philae landed today!

Rosetta achieved orbit around Comet 67P after a ten-year flight. Last night there was the decision to go – to separate Philae and begin descent to landing with an unserviceable thruster. So much excitement!

With millions of others I watched it live. Or as live as it can get when, at the speed of light, the signals take 27 minutes to reach us.

Congratulations to ESA for their accomplishment and their gutsy decision to stream live from the control room. There has been nothing like this since Neil Armstrong set foot on the  moon in 1969. My sons are all too young to remember that, to say nothing of my four grandsons. Space is back! And thank goodness for that!

Co-operation

It was (if I have got his name right) Daniel Neuenschwander, the head of the Swiss delegation to ESA, who, among all the speakers after the landing, got my attention. Regarding getting into space, he said, there is no alternative to co-operation.

(Now it appears the harpoons didn’t fire, or haven’t yet. (See ESA for details). That keeps the excitement going. I (and humanity) hope Philae can cling to the surface in that meagre gravity and keep sending us information. But this is already a major achievement, whatever happens.)

Think of the history: the USSR orbits Sputnik, and then Laika (the dog). Then a human person, Yuri Gargarin.

President Kennedy leads the USA into the “space race”, and NASA achieves the goal he sets: to land a man on the moon and return him safely to Earth.

In 2004 Burt Rutan (financed by Paul Allen) designs and builds Spaceship One and wins the X-Prize.

In 2013 China lands an (unmanned) rover on the moon.

In 2014 SpaceX (Elon Musk) soft-lands a rocket booster in the ocean.

In 2014 Spaceship Two breaks up when the wing/tail feather deploys prematurely.

There is a space race here, but it is a competition of ideas, not ideologies. A communist country pulls ahead into orbit. A democracy provides leadership and technology to land a man on the moon. A generation and a half goes by. Private entrepreneurship invents and demonstrates the badminton bird re-entry. Ditto the re-useable booster. Bravo Burt and Elon! And today a loosely joined bunch of nations has landed on a comet, opening a window onto the formation of our solar system and perhaps life itself.

Diversity

What is the takeaway here?

For me, it is what Daniel Neuenschwander said. There are huge challenges facing humanity. Will we address them adequately before our planet joins Mars in its fate?

There is so much to do.

Can Burt Rutan’s badminton bird re-entry be extended/combined to handle the much higher energies required for a recovery from orbit? Can we invent self-sustaining environmental systems? Can we move beyond the rocket – incredibly wasteful as it throws mass out the tail, accelerating through Newton’s Third Law?

I am an optimist. I know we can do it. But it will take everybody. Not just this or that system of government. Not just private enterprise. Not just one visionary human.

Mr. Neuenschwander got it right today: there is no alternative to co-operation.