Why the Philae lander came at just the right time – a social perspective from a science enthusiast

By now, it has been more than a week since the Philae lander was released from the Rosetta space probe and began its journey onto the surface of Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko. The landing didn’t go without trouble, starting with the reported failure of the gas thruster meant to help keep it on the surface before the lander was even released and ending with Philae bouncing twice on the surface of the comet and ending up in the shadow of a cliff, greatly reducing the amount of solar exposure available to the lander. Nevertheless, the mission could be regarded as having succeeded in some respect already, even if conditions do not improve with regard to the sunlight falling on Philae; after all, it did retrieve some potentially useful results from its experimental apparatus before running out of battery power.

Frankly, though, as impressive as the science and engineering of Philae is, a lot of words have been spoken about that aspect long before this post by people far more experienced and talented in those fields than I am. What I want to talk about are some social implications of the fortuitous timing of Philae’s success. The timing of Philae’s mission came in the wake of two unfortunate accidents in the United States by privately-funded aerospace ventures: one the controlled explosion of a failed launch of an Antares rocket developed by Orbital Sciences and designated to send supplies to the International Space Station; the other being the recent crash of the SpaceShipTwo spacecraft, VSS Enterprise, in the Mojave Desert during testing, an accident which led to the death of one of the pilots. At a time when funding for space exploration is hard to come by, these accidents looked embarrassing at best. Rosetta and Philae were launched on their course ten years ago, but arrived in time to at least salvage one reasonable success for space exploration at a time when some people have been quick to criticise it, especially those always willing to fight for petty political victories in matters that mean little.

In that vein, another social implication of Rosetta and Philae comes courtesy of their existence as components of a mission of the European Space Agency. The ESA, funded partially by funds forthcoming from each participating government and partially by the European Union, is a demonstration of the effectiveness of European cooperation at a time when several Eurosceptic groups seek to convince us that such cooperation will lead us nowhere. At a time when these groups have motivations that are at best questionable, like Ukip, while others look like straight-up crypto-fascists, like France’s Front National, I think any sort of success that can show them that Europe can work better if there is sufficient motivation to get things done is useful and desirable. That this happened because a set of scientists and engineers from different countries ignored the call of jingoism and pointless ring-fencing further reinforces my point about these people being willing to fight only in the sake of petty politics when more important things lie at stake. The Rosetta mission – and the ESA in general – shows us the potential and power of cooperation and should be taken as a good example of what the likes of Ukip and FN would take away from us if they were to take power in their respective countries.