Georgina Guedes

We landed a spacecraft on a comet

2014-11-13 14:28

Georgina Guedes

We landed a spacecraft on a comet. We, a weak species with an oversized brain often turned to war or judgment, sent a robotic probe six billion kilometres into space to land on a piece of rock and ice hurtling through the ether at more than 18km per second.

The point of contact was 510 million kilometres from earth. Rosetta left Earth ten years ago. It is now so far away that even radio signals travelling at the speed of light take nearly half an hour to reach home, which made steering the probe during landing an impossibility.

The entire descent had to be calculated and uploaded in advance. The scientists say that it’s possible the probe might have bounced on landing, making this both the first and second time that Earthlings have landed a probe on a comet.

This is stirring stuff. Today, I’m feeling pretty good to be a human being. We get so much wrong but we also do incredible things that express our species’ hunger for knowledge, for understanding and for advancement.

And while the pursuit of power is not really my thing, the ability to send something of ours so many millions of kilometres away from our planet is a really good way of screaming into the void, “We’re significant.”

The dark side of the comet

Of course, as always, when an awesome achievement or unifying force captures the imaginations of billions of people around the world, there are those who want to express the dark side. “We can put a probe on a comet, but we can’t get textbooks to Limpopo,” was offered up by Jonathan Jansen (a person for whom I have the utmost respect).

Others have spoken about world hunger, treating Ebola, ending war. While I think that Prof Jansen’s comment was meant as a form of chastisement for the South African government, many of the rest of the observations seemed to be saying that we shouldn’t celebrate this human achievement out in space while right here on Earth, human suffering exists. Check out #butwecanlandonacomet to see what I mean.

It’s the same kind of mentality that had people complaining bitterly about the ALS ice bucket challenge while there are so many other diseases with a better chance of being cured that weren’t garnering donations with a silly social campaign.
I believe that it’s terribly important to be aware of context, to know that your troubles aren’t the worst in the world, or to understand that others may not have access to the same sources of joy as you do. I often find myself drowning in the sea of competing demands for my time and my empathy.

But at the same time, I believe that every significant moment has a right to be celebrated or mourned in isolation, without immediately being compared to every other related or unrelated event in history.

Just enjoy it

We don’t need to pretend not to care that a celebrity has had a baby because there are 360 000 other babies born every day. We don’t have to draw up a chart of worthy causes and support them proportionally, based on a likelihood of success or number of people suffering. We don’t have to finish the food on our plates because there are people starving in Sudan. And we don’t have to answer to every positive thing that humanity ever achieves with thoughts of our widespread failures.

Sure, it’s important to be aware of all of these things, to be concerned about them and to do what we can to help fix them, but sometimes, when something extraordinary has been achieved, it’s OK to sit back and say, “Wow!”

And so, that’s what I’m doing today. I’m not thinking about textbooks or hunger or Ebola; I’m having a little geeky celebration because the human race did something cool that will advance science and knowledge, and I’m proud of us.

- Georgina Guedes is a freelance writer. You can follow @georginaguedes on Twitter.

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