I don’t usually like to anthropomorphise but I couldn’t help but be moved by this image of a lone, washing machine sized robot, floating in space some 350 million miles away from earth. OK, I know it’s not Wall-E, trundling around cleaning up a dystopian earth, but Philae has literally been bouncing around a comet. Wow! With all the ups-and-downs of the last few days I can’t help but find myself rooting for the little guy. Will his batteries fail? Will he be able to drill into the surface? Is he lying on his side? The tension is too much! And apologies to the feminists but, like Wall-E, Philae is far too chunky to be a ladybot – it looks like a ‘he’ to me.
This space mission ranks as one of the greatest human achievements ever. It is, and I use the word carefully, awesome - both in its bold scope and delivery. I love the analogy used by one space scientist who said that bringing Philae to the surface was akin to “landing a ballon in a city centre, on a windy day, with your eyes closed.” Impossible – but they did it.
This project is, of course, chock-full of invention. And the astonishing things is that the technology is over twenty years old. It’s a sobering thought that, because of the incredible distances involved, any far-flung space exploration will always be using yesterday’s tech – even if it is cutting-edge when launched.
There are, sadly, detractors. Those well-meaning hand-wringers who witter on about “what a waste of money it is when there are poor people in the world.” I feel sorry for them because they can’t, or don’t, feel the excitement and take pride in just what space exploration and discovery can bring - not only in scientific knowledge but technological advances too. I wonder if Columbus had the same snide remarks when he decided to sail off and discover America. The money involved (which in real terms is quite modest) should be seen as an investment both in the advancement of human understanding and for the fantastic spin-offs we all enjoy. The next time someone criticises space programmes tell them to throw away their mobile phones and internet connections for starters!
Finally, what a triumph for European co-operation. No member state of the EU could have undertaken this breath-taking achievement on their own. With Rosetta, the European Space Agency have shown what a united European effort really is capable of.