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Almost there…

ROSETTA is now eleven days away from releasing the Philae lander and attempting Mankind’s first ever landing on a comet.

Just think about that for a moment. In less than a fortnight, after centuries, actually millennia, of being terrified then puzzled then fascinated by comets, we will finally set down a machine on one which will give us our first ever views from the surface of one of these most enigmatic of solar system objects.

But of course, success is not guaranteed. If you unravelled a roll of toilet paper you could write on every sheet something which might go wrong and prevent Philae from making a successful landing. This IS rocket science and it IS hard. And if anyone had forgotten that, if anyone was starting to think that getting to and exploring space is now easy, is now routine, the Universe gave them a hard and well-deserved kick up the arse twice this week, to remind us of the dangerous, unpredictable nature of space exploration this week. First, watching the Antares rocket stall in mid-air and then fall back to the launch pad in a camera-shaking explosion of orange flame and choking black smoke, and then, just a day ago, seeing the torn and tattered remains of the Virgin Galactic Spaceship Two scattered across the Mojave desert, we were all reminded that however the mainstream media portray it, and whatever the critics and cynics say, getting machinery and people off the surface of Earth and up into space is almost insanely difficult, and the price of achieving it successfully is often paid for in tears and blood and lives.

Inevitably in the aftermath of last week’s events some called for an end to space exploration, saying it cost too much, was too dangerous, etc. Some particularly nasty, vicious, spitefully personal pieces appeared online after SS2 was lost – I’m looking at you, WIRED, you heartless, opportunistic bastards – written by people who simply don’t get the significance and importance of space exploration, and can’t grasp, intellectually, that we have to explore space, there is no choice. Not because “It’s in our DNA to explore”, or because “It’s our destiny to spread Mankind across space” or any of those oft-quoted grand reasons, as true as they are. No. The basic fact is that we have no choice. We have to get people off Earth, and living somewhere else, because Earth is a big, shiny blue sitting duck in a cosmic fairground shooting gallery, and any day one of the remote telescopes surveying the heavens could find the asteroid that has our name on it. But even if that doesn’t happen for years, or decades, we need to get people living Somewhere Else Out There because despite all the warnings of our scientists we are still trying our very best to completely f**k up the Earth, with pollution, over-population, global warming and a sackful of other stupidities. And even if we somehow, magically, sorted out all those things tomorrow, with a Harry Potter flick of a wand, the inescapable truth is that earth is, in cosmic terms, a planetary Titanic which is heading towards an iceberg, and that iceberg is the death of the Sun. We have to get off Earth because in the future – the far future, admittedly – Earth will become uninhabitable as the Sun swells and renders life on our world impossible. Just impossible. We know that will happen, there is no dispute about it, that’s just the way it is. The death of the Sun, and the extinction of life on Earth, is a tsunami, rolling slowly but relentlessly towards us, and we can’t get out of its path. All we can do is start planning how to send out lifeboats and make sure our species survives. And ok, we have billions of years to do that, but we have to start now because if we don’t, when we can, there’s no guarantee that future generations will. They might take our apathy as guidance, and wait, passing on the task to the generation after theirs… and they do the same… until, one day, it’s too late…

Science fiction, I know. And probably totally unrealistic. But today we have a choice. We either keep exploring, keep pushing back that Frontier, keep seeking out and then going beyond new horizons, or we will condemn our descendants to a live imprisoned on an increasingly-filthy, resource-starved, over-populated, dying world, with no way of leaving.

Today, as sombre Virgin Galactic technicians wander the Mojave desert collecting up the scattered remains of SpaceShip 2, many are calling for an end to private space missions, and to the exploration of space in general. This is sad, and wrong, but not surprising. Throughout history, whenever something new and daring and bold has been proposed by men and women who have that strange, almost alien fire of invention flickering in their hearts, and the light of wonder shining in their eyes, there have always been other people, lurking in the shadows, eyes fixed firmly on the ground, ready and willing to whine and twine “You’re fools… it will never work, you’ll never do it… ” They were there when the Wright Brothers were building the Wright Flyer. They were there when the first steam engine was being built. They were there when the first hot air balloon was being stitched together and when the first airliner was being bolted together. They were there when someone suggested landing a rover on Mars wrapped in inflatable air bags, or lowering it down from the sky on a line. No doubt when the wheel’s inventor was chiselling away at that block of stone there was someone looking on from a cave mouth shaking their head and grunting in disapproval.

And when they were proved wrong, when the wheel rolled across the ground, when the hot air balloon took off, when the airliner hauled itself off the runway, when the Wright Flyer soared above the sands at Kitty Hawk, when Spirit and Opportunity bounced to triumphant landings on the Red Planet, and when Curiosity’s wheels kissed the ground in the shadow of Mt Sharp the doubters and naysayers wrung their hands and shook their heads and moaned “You were lucky…but it will go wrong eventually, it’s not worth the risk!”

And then, when an accident happened, when the first wheel rolled into a boulder and cracked, when the first balloon sagged and dropped to the ground, when the first airliner’s wheels crumpled beneath it, the doubters rejoiced, hopping excitedly from foot to foot like jesters, laughing smugly “See? We told you so! It WAS too dangerous! You should never have done it! But you did, and look what happened!” and demanded the pioneers should stop pushing forward, the dreamers stop dreaming…

But they didn’t listen. They kept going. And because they kept going we have the modern world we live in.

When the Apollo 1 crew perished in that horrifying fire, when Challenger blew herself to pieces after launch, when Columbia shook herself apart coming in for landing, some demanded the end of space exploration. And it must have been tempting to give in. But after crying, and searching their souls, and grieving, the people involved vowed to honour the sacrifices made by the fallen, and stride onwards, knowing what was at stake – nothing less than the future itself. That is what will happen now. The Antares team will learn what went wrong and then build another rocket. After analysing the torn remains of their beautiful, snow-white, fallen bird, the Virgin Galactic team will build another SS2. And one day in the future both will leave Earth behind and soar skywards on invisible wings of hope, inspiration and the spirit of exploration…

Whatever happens after Philae drifts away from Rosetta and begins its long drop down to the surface of 67P we will learn from it. If it lands successfully, and shows us, for the first time, the surface of a comet, it will be a dream come true. If it fails, if it bounces off the comet, or sinks into it, it will still be an epic day, for ESA and all the people following events online, because we will have tried something new. And that’s the important thing. To keep trying, whatever happens.

I can’t even begin to imagine how the ROSETTA and Philae teams are feeling right now, with all this doom and gloom around them. We can only wish them Godpseed and let them know we’re thinking of them. And will be with them, whatever happens.

In the meantime, the latest images of 67P taken by ROSETTA’s navcam show more fascinating features on the comet’s surface…





Look at the detail. Stunning. It’s not hard now imagine the detail visible in the OSIRIS images which have been taken, but we will have to imagine, because the miserable b*****ds in charge of the camera won’t share their pictures with the world. I know that sounds harsh, but really, I’m done being polite about this. Images taken by OSIRIS a month ago, which the team has had time to work on fir their research, would inspire millions if released, but no, they won’t share them. Well, fair enough, that’s up to them. I hope they’re pleased with themselves, and don’t mind that they’re coming across as selfish and arrogant and damaging ESA’s image. Actually, I’m pretty sure they don’t mind. They don’t care at all.

Those navcam images are proof that ROSETTA has already achieved incredible things. It has revealed a comet to us, in all its glory, for the first time, and offered us the opportunity to attempt our first landing on one. But as we approach Landing Day, with our imaginations fired and our expectations soaring, it’s important to remember that a successful landing for Philae is not guaranteed, nor is anything in space exploration. But if something does go wrong on the 12th, after the cynics and critics have had their time in the spotlight, complaining about the cost, condemning the waste of money, and worse, we will try again, one day.

Because that’s what we do. And it’s what we must do, if we are going to survive.

There is no other choice.