Rosetta And The Future Of Man

I’ve been a fan of space travel and NASA since I was a little boy. I read about the Mercury and Gemini programs and followed the Apollo missions. I dreamed of earthlings colonizing Mars, a dream helped along by Ray Bradbury’s The Martian Chronicles and other books.

But I never thought I’d live to see mankind land a probe on a comet! Did you get that? Just when we thought the world was going to hell in all kinds of ways, when we felt all our institutions were failing us (they really aren’t, of course), we landed on a comet. Wow.

By “we” I mean the European Space Agency, with help from NASA. All morning I waited for the big event, and a little bit after 10 this morning it happened, as this tweet from ESA indicates:

rosetta mission landing tweet

 “Philae” is the landing craft that left its mother ship, Rosetta, and landed on Comet 67P/Churyumov–Gerasimenko, which is currently 300 million miles away from Earth and headed toward the Sun. All of which merited a shout-out from Captain Kirk himself:

captain kirk tweet

The journey to the comet took more than 10 years, after its launch in March of 2004. That was before some guy named Barack Obama gave the famous keynote speech at his party’s convention that first brought him national attention. Think of all the events we have witnessed since then. Yet, during all that time there was Rosetta speeding its way to a rendezvous with, and carrying a probe that would eventually land on—let me say it again—a comet! One of these things (photo of Comet West via NASA; Comet 67P can’t be seen with the naked eye):

Comet West

Comet 67P actually looks like this closeup (the primary landing site is enlarged):

Philae's primary landing site, Site J, now named Agilkia

Needless to say, this is one stunning technical achievement, even though as of right now the probe Philae hasn’t been secured on the surface of the comet. Because Comet 67P is so small, its gravitational pull is hundreds of thousands of times weaker than Earth’s and harpoons were suppose to fire from the lander to help keep it in place. They didn’t fire and no one knows why. There are, though, ice screws on each of the lander’s three legs that are supposed to use the impact energy from the landing to drive them into the surface. Hopefully that will be enough to keep it attached while the science is conducted.

In any case, whatever happens, it is a remarkable day for our kind. I want to share with you what Jim Green, director of NASA’s Planetary Sciences Division, had to say about the event. Mr. Green was at ESA when Philae touched down and couldn’t contain his American-style enthusiasm in front of the distinguished guests:

Personally, from my perspective, how audacious! How exciting! How unbelievable to be able to dare to land on a comet! To take that step that we’ve all wanted, from a scientific perspective…It is the start of something important. The Solar System is mankind’s. This mission is the first step to take it. It is ours! Let’s learn about the environment that we are in. It’s these steps that will lead us beyond this planet and onto Mars and out into the Solar System. I truly believe that a single planet’s species will not survive long. It’s our destiny to move off this planet.

You have to love the guy. He thinks big. Like human beings should do. This planet is too small to hold us!

I want to inject into this tribute to human ingenuity a note about a couple of old friends of mine. The old friends are actually spacecraft that were launched in 1977, one just before and one just after I turned 19. Voyager 1 and Voyager 2 are still alive and transmitting data back to earth, even though by the time the radio signals arrive here, they are less than a billionth of a billionth of a watt. Yet, those signals shout out our expansion into the universe.

Both Voyagers flew by Jupiter and Saturn, and Voyager 2 managed to also take in Uranus and Neptune on its scientific sightseeing tour of the Solar System. After their planetary missions, they headed for interstellar space. Voyager 2 is 10 billion miles away from home and counting and hasn’t yet reached the boundary that defines interstellar conditions. Voyager 1 has reached interstellar space—the first man-made object to do so—and is more than 12 billion miles from Earth. Travelling at 38,000 miles per hour, it is headed in the direction of the constellation Ophiuchus, which brings us back to the comet.

In Book II of Paradise Lost, John Milton compared Satan to a spectacular comet flashing across the constellation Ophiuchus:

Incens’d with indignation Satan stood
Unterrify’d, and like a comet burn’d
That fires the length of Ophiuchus huge
In th’ arctic sky, and from his horrid hair
Shakes pestilence and war.

Paradise Lost is based on the story of the Fall of Man found in the book of Genesis, a story that attempts to persuade us that death is God’s punishment upon us for our failure to resist Satan’s offer of forbidden knowledge. Milton’s use of the streaking comet as a metaphor for Satan shaking “pestilence and war” on mankind is perfect, now that we have actually set our collective feet on a real comet today. Perhaps it is that all the knowledge and imagination and intelligence that went into the ESA’s Rosetta mission represents a metaphorical conquering of our ancient fears and superstitions. And perhaps Voyager 1’s planet montagestreaking “the length of Ophiuchus” represents a newer, far superior image of mankind than the horrific imagery found in the Old Testament and in Bible-based epics like Paradise Lost.

Aboard Voyager 1 is a 12-inch gold-plated phonograph record that holds selected cultural sounds and images of life on Earth. Featuring sounds of nature and music and a sampling of the world’s languages, NASA says the record is “intended to communicate a story of our world to extraterrestrials.” But I think the story is better told to ourselves. We are an amazing species when we want to be.

The great Carl Sagan, who chaired a committee that determined the content of the record aboard both Voyagers, said,

The spacecraft will be encountered and the record played only if there are advanced spacefaring civilizations in interstellar space. But the launching of this bottle into the cosmic ocean says something very hopeful about life on this planet.

Indeed, it does. And so does riding a comet.



  1. Really nice piece here, Duane. I applaud everything you said and then some. I remember seeing Werner Von Braun at my high school back in the 50’s giving a talk about the future of space — complete with color slides. Like everybody else, I was mesmerized. And there is no doubt we have come a long way over the last 60 years.

    But as much as I hate to say it, we, meaning we the people of the earth, would be better off diverting the funds from space projects and putting them into projects that would help promote global sustainability. We are consuming natural resources at a rate that, by some estimates, requires three earths to sustain.

    Global warming is creating an ecological mess that threatens our food supply and the availability of potable water. We continue to make a mess of the oceans. There are several debris fields the size of Texas floating around. Industrial and waste runoff are lowering the pH to levels where much of the flora and fauna in the seas are threatened and on the decline. There are no more cod off Cape Cod. Coral reefs, which form the liver of the oceans, are dying.

    NASA’s proposed $17.5 billion budget for FY 2015 is not much in the scheme of things. And most of that is for maintenance of programs already underway like the Philae probe. But every little bit helps. Of course, none of it will be done unless there is no risk and substantial profit involved. Elected officials don’t like to talk about opportunity costs or future liabilities.

    It is great to pause and reflect on our accomplishments, and some of those have been the greatest in the history of mankind. But the future is upon us and it looks bleak from an environmental standpoint. I guess we’ll just add that to the other major problems we face that our elected officials choose not to face.


    p.s., On a related issue, I don’t know if Carol will publish it, but I sent her another Op-Ed discussing the most recent IPCC report on global warming. You’ll be pleased to know that I gave the Republicans several well deserved whacks. It mostly bashes Inhofe, but I also take on Krauthammer and George Will. If it’s published and I sense a good deal of animosity, I may have to change my plans for spending Thanksgiving in Joplin.


    • Thanks for the kind words, Herb.

      I obviously agree with you on the issue of global warming and the wild consumption of our natural resources. We are in serious danger of doing irrevocable damage to our home planet.

      But I don’t agree that we “would be better off diverting the funds from space projects and putting them into projects that would help promote global sustainability.” Sure, we need to put lots and lots of money into the latter, but to abandon the former is to abandon part of what makes us who we are as a species.

      It’s sort of like folks who want to cut art and music out of public education because “there isn’t enough money to go around.” Hooey. There is plenty of money. It’s just that it is concentrated in the hands of too-few human beings. We have the resources. We can do both things at the same time. We can fund our collective imagination and creativity, as well as fund projects that will promote the health of the Earth.

      Oh, and please let me know if the Globe publishes your piece and when. I’m looking forward to you dope-slapping the right-wingers on this ridiculously contentious issue.



  2. I’m afraid I have to side with Herb on manned colonies in space. Short of discovering new physics, like wormhole-transportation, humanity is stuck here on this rapidly deteriorating Earth. I ascribe to the anthropic principle. Our existence is a rarity, manbe even unique. We live on a Goldilocks planet, just the right mass, the right axial tilt, the right distance from our star, the right mix of elements.

    But, the Rosetta mission does present an intriguing possibility in learning more about water in space. Water is the essential substance of life as we know it. That it should exist in copious quantities in space seems ever so unlikely. Water exists in its liquid state only in a very narrow range of pressure and temperature, and yet it has arisen from the same thermonuclear debris of a supernova explosion that the Earth and its star did.

    You are right, Duane. The ability to do science, to learn truth, is a clear upside of mankind’s potential. Thanks for a positive post amid all the despair.


    • Thanks, Jim.

      The limited colonization of Mars will happen, my friend. I’m convinced of it. The only thing that will stop it is if something catastrophic happens to our planet, either directly or indirectly caused by us, or some kind of natural event like an asteroid collision.

      It’s just the logical thing to do. All other bodies in the universe are off-limits, either because of the vast distance involved or because of the intolerable local conditions. And even unmanned space probes of our solar system will eventually stop yielding sufficient new information that would justify the expense involved.

      Mankind will eventually have to undertake a man-laden mission to Mars, and maybe in a couple of hundred years there will be a colony there, likely a colony of scientists, who will live there and reproduce there, making their offspring the first (that we know of) Martians.

      I just wish I were around to see it. It’s been a life-long dream.



  3. ansonburlingame

     /  November 13, 2014


    Obviously a great blog and sentiments therein. Human nature will never stop exploring the unknown. That is one of the great aspects of humanity.

    Janet (my wife) was reading the news accounts to me this morning. She wondered “how did they do that”. Well there I went, telling her how to land on a comet!!! Pluck that string with me and I will tell you all sorts of “crap”. I was about 8 years old when I first saw the rings of Saturn. I have never stopped wondering every since and still read, voracioulsy, that sort of “stuff”, fiction, science fiction or the real thing, which is really hard to grasp, for me at least.

    I recently completed reading a book, the “real thing” if you will, by Susskind, one of the original proponents of String Theory. My mind is still spinning from the book, explaning the possibility, even likelyhood of mulitple universes. Makes one comet in one solar system seem insignificant, like our own Earth in such a grand set of such ideas.

    But my God, just step back and consider where humans have come from over just 2000 years, a “milisecond” in terms of just our own universe, much less others. Even more amazing in the last 100 years, since Einstein first began “Einsteining”. Thanks Sir Issac, but you are now history by and large. But then again, maybe not. As I explained to Janet this morning the same “laws” (Kepler’s Laws) were used to land on the comet or land on the moon in 1969. Sir Issac “invented” calculus, probably his greatest contribution to human knowledge. Without that math, well ……. But of course Sir Issac did not invent anything. Calculus was always there but he was the first to find it!! I wonder if God understands calculus???

    As for money, government support of exploration, there is not way any government will prevent exploration. And it is in government’s best interest to support such exploration, in some form of prioritization of supporting great ideas.

    I am sure there was someone in Congress long ago saying we should not build forts in the west to advance settling a continent, which began with exploration of a continent, Lewis and Clark, funded by government!! I am also sure that no president or Congress felt we had to “take care of” every American on the East Coast before we settled the West Coast and points in between.

    Government MUST feed the human spirit of human exploration. To fail to do so would pour water on an instinctive fire. We cannot wait for every human on earth to have universal health care, old age pensions, young age pensions (welfare), etc. before we explore. Human nature will not allow that, but some liberals may try to hold it back!!

    The trick of course is to hold government accountable for prioritization of human needs and the never ending human quest for more information, access to more “territory”, exploitation of the vast materials in new “territories” (space) to support human existence and the list goes on.

    Someday human beings will literally outgrow Earth. We will they go next I wonder?



    • Anson,

      I started reading Brian Greene’s The Elegant Universe when it first came out and tried to make my way through string theory. I gave it up after a ways through. I found that I after I got a general understanding (very general, indeed) of what was being proposed, it didn’t help much to get into the finer details. There was a point of diminishing returns, in terms of what I was able to grasp.

      There are many people who believe that mathematics was, as you said of calculus, “always there” waiting to be discovered (I think I wrote a blog on that subject a long, long time ago). Seems that way. Sort of like the principles of logic, I suppose. It is things like that that have always made me quite careful not to discount the possibility of an overarching intelligence behind our existence.

      We have found yet another point of agreement between us, by the way:

      Government MUST feed the human spirit of human exploration.

      I am a strong proponent of such governmental activity, not just for things like space exploration, but for things like a cure (or, more accurately, cures) for cancer. The NIH, the NASA of disease fighting, funds most of the basic research being done on cancer, research that is under threat of budget cuts, unfortunately. You suggest that liberals may try to “hold back” the money for human exploration, so long as there are so many needy among us who need the help. I acknowledge that there are some who would. But you should acknowledge that the biggest threat to all that government does in terms of space exploration and things like cancer exploration is from teavangelical Republicans, who don’t respect science or the promise of human intelligence.

      And I wish you would also acknowledge that a Republican Party who not only is afraid to challenge such anti-science know-nothings, but actually uses them for political advantage, is not doing the country any favors on either the issue of space exploration or cancer-cure exploration.



  4. It could very well be that calculus and logic are an artifact of the way our brains developed, but I admit that the fit of calculus, physics, and logic with what we observe in the universe around us is pretty impressive. But, then, *we* are the ones observing, aren’t we?

    What say ye about Gödel’s theorem?


    • Michael,

      Yes, we are the ones observing, but it nevertheless seems like there is something out there that we are really apprehending, something that we didn’t construct with our minds but merely discovered is true. That idea has always fascinated me and the debate about whether mathematical objects exist independently of minds continues (I tend to shy away from reification, myself).

      As for Gödel’s theorem(s), ever since I first learned and only dimly understood what he was saying (I have no talent for mathematics), I have sometimes used the idea to justify some form of theistic belief (I waiver on this point). As I understand Gödel’s religious beliefs, he (and others since him) used the ideas associated with his incompleteness theorems as some intellectual support for believing in (his case) a meta-personal God, whose existence is necessary to complete reality. 

      That is sort of how I see the existence of God, at least at times. Gödel proved that any system of sufficient complexity (a system dependent on arithmetic, for instance) is incomplete since that system by the nature of the case contains more propositions than can be proven (or disproven) using the rules of the system itself. Such proof would have to exist outside of the system (unless the system is inconsistent by allowing contradictions). And so it is with that next larger system. And so with the next.

      In other words, it seems impossible to actually prove every single proposition. There will always be a proposition the truth of which rests on something outside of the particular system in which it appears (science itself proceeds under such restraints or, more to the point, because of them). Intuition, then, counts for something. Extending this to the universe at large is not that difficult a leap. Reason has its limits, one could argue (and as Gödel proved), and our intuitions about the necessary existence of God should not be discounted simply because they are ultimately unprovable.

      I don’t know if such a notion is ultimately sound or whether it is merely wishful thinking. But it implies the possibility of immortality (of the good variety) and that is why, I think, so many people want it to be true.



  5. ansonburlingame

     /  November 15, 2014

    Is “Godel” a Hobbit?? Never heard of him.

    Duane, try The Cosmic Landscape, by Lenonard Susskin. It is more understandable than Green’s book, which I have read also. As Susskin explains it, we live in a universe of “fields”. Electromagnetic fields, gravitational fields, “short range” range fields that hold the nucleus of an atom together (how can 100 positive particles stay “glued together”?). Einstein came up with photons for electromagnetic fields. Current science considers gravitons holding earth near the sun, and there are now “bosons”, etc. dealing with short range forces of unbelievable strength.

    Susskin then hypothesizes a transuniverse field of Higgs Bosons, some sort of field that dictates how photons, gravitons, etc. “act”. Thus far it is only math that delves into such things and the math is so complex that very few can even begin to understand it, much less advance it.

    Reading that sort of “stuff” for me at least is somewhat understandable. In college I studied things like quantum theory, Heseinberg Uncertainly Principle, and other esoteric things of that nature, science developed from about 1900 up to about 1960. Susskin reexplains all that “stuff” in layman terms and then moves from about 1970’s thinking up to today in both Cosmology and very small particle physics.

    You, me, 99.999% of the world population could never “prove” Einstein, Susskin, the guy with ALS, etc. But at least the last two have written in laymen terms trying to explain to the masses what they think and spend a lifetime trying to advance and ponder more.

    If you can read political philosophy, at least follow the trend of ideas therein, you can comprehend the science authors when they write in layman terms. But you must keep your mind wide open when doing so as what they suggest is mostly “unbelievable”.



    • Anson,

      I have in my library probably fifty books related to quantum mechanics and from time to time I will grab one and plow into it for about, oh, a day or two. Then I realize once again that without formal training in physics, even the books written for general readers get a little heavy to navigate through. I get the very basics of the Standard Model and have a murky understanding of parts of the Copenhagen interpretation and Schrödinger’s cat and other such things, but beyond that it is just too much damned work! I can’t tell you how many hours upon hours I have spent reading and thinking about, say, the double-slit experiment. That just blows my mind—literally sometimes. Spooky shit. But it is so fascinating that I can’t leave it alone for too long and open one of my books. Then I get thumped in the head all over again.



  6. ansonburlingame

     /  November 19, 2014

    I understand your dilemma and don’t in any way try to use it against you.

    I can offer something simple to consider on the double-split experiment, however.

    You think of an electron as one small “ball” in space, moving around quickly in “time”. Here one moment and there the next. A baseball can only go through one hole at a given moment in time, for example.

    Well not if the electron (baseball) in fact is a “wave”, a series of possible positions at any given moment. It’s “here” one moment and thus MUST go through that hole, at that moment. But no, it is not “here” in that moment, it just might be “over there” and thus HAS to go through THAT hole!!

    Think of Claire Mc. as a quantum electron. She is a Dem and thus MUST vote this way. But ……, no maybe she is not a DEM and thus must …….. Reid “fixes” that “quantum dilemma by not puting any holes up there where she must make a choice and thus acts like the electron your want her to be!!!!

    If you really tried to read Greene, you would find therein a real dilemma. An electron might be “right here” in one moment but at the edge of the universe a moment later. Sure defies the theory on the speed limit of the universe but then again it does not.

    I on the other hand can read that “stuff” much easier than say trying to read Kant and others. Each to his own as far as I am concerned. And you are correct in that my limited education got me to that point. Without it I would be ……..!!



    • Anson,

      I am familiar with the wave function associated with quantum physics. I find the idea of quantum states quite fascinating, if somewhat counter-intuitive. The double-slit experiment is an example of something that one would not have anticipated, which is why I find it so amazing. That’s what I like about the quantum world. It defies common sense. As in Schrödinger’s thought experiment, all possibilities are present until the collapse of the wave function brought on by an observation. Which leads to a deeper question: Is God the ultimate observer? Hmm.

      By the way. There are a lot of similarities between the unpredictability of an individual particle in the double-slit experiment, as well as the predictability of a large number of particles in that experiment, and the unpredictability of an individual voter, as well as the predictability of a large number of voters (that’s how polling works). I find that, again, eerily fascinating.



%d bloggers like this: