Rosetta-Philae-Comet 67P: Wonderful, But Still Waiting On That Moonbase


Static image of the Rosetta mission timeline — JPL

The Philae lander is down on comet 67P and transmitting. This has plenty of potential to yield some wonderful science, having a probe on a comet as it makes a close approach to the sun. Also, it’s the first time humans have (via robotic probe) harpooned a celestial body.

Surely the first harpooning in space is a historical landmark that will be remembered forever.

I love things like this. We’re learning, rooting around in the corner of the universe we can reach, being properly nosy as befits the curious scions of the primate lineage. Exploration is what we’re built for — even when it manifests in less-highbrow ways such as Hollywood gossip shows and reality TV, we’re all about curiosity.

On the other hand, the Rosetta mission is a pale shadow of what might have been. The impatient science fiction lover side of me can’t help but ask why we didn’t launch such a mission from a base on the moon, why we couldn’t have just sent a pack of scientists over with a combination spaceship/laboratory.

Why we had to wait until 2014 to get robot-transmitted data from a comet when there were people walking around on the moon in 1969.

You might point to the ‘impatient’ part of my self-description in answering those questions. Hey, this is big stuff. It will take us generations to get to the stage where there’s a constant human presence on the moon, on mars, or elsewhere other than earth. The space race and moon landing were conducted by the seat of the pants, technologically speaking. We were really operating beyond the scope of our practical capabilities, pushing the envelope too far, and we’re damn lucky we put people on the moon without killing more astronauts as it is. We’re just going to have to wait, and build up slow to the future day when there might be off-earth colonies and mining and so forth.

There’s some justice to that. On the other hand, pushing into the frontier is always hazardous, no matter where and when that frontier is.

And there’s some time pressure. We take space exploration, mining, and colonization slow because we’re busy spending all of our resources on other things. Some of those are necessary things. Like feeding people. We shouldn’t starve anyone to establish a moon base or put a probe on a comet. But we don’t, do we?

We spend FAR more money killing each other. We spend our moonbase money on drones and bullets and warships and stealth bombers and millions of soldiers in arms and semi-secret torture-slash-prison facilities and IEDs and upkeep of nuclear weapons and developing biological weapons…

…and that money could potentially render our slow and steady tortoiselike progress toward getting all of our human eggs out of this one fragile basket, earth, useless. One good nuclear exchange, one good release of weaponized smallpox, one good world war like the last two, and we could easily set progress back on this space race we’re in to zero, to less than nothing. We treat it like a luxury, and war like the necessity.

It’s precisely the other way around. And there’s every chance that our vast indulgence in the diabolical luxury of war will land us in the dustbin of geological history, just another strange happening on a little blue and green marble known best for its beautiful but unintelligent and ground-bound lower forms of life.

The Rosetta mission is a wonderful and great undertaking, and I hope for its continued success. I only wish we had as much wonderful great success as we should. This is a crumb, a tasty, tasty crumb, compared to the space program humanity should collectively have.

We should have a banquet.


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