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Firsts in Space Require Political Will

Larry Wines: In a sense, today's landing by ESA symbolizes the descent of NASA from the gold standard to a hollow shell systematically deprived of funding due to America's "austerity" era.

The comet-lander spacecraft Philae has landed on Comet 67P, a small natural object going 41,000 mph, after successfully separating from its Rosetta spacecraft mothership.

First in Space

It's all a first. And it's humankind's first encounter with the original materials that became the planets and moons of our solar system.

This is not NASA. It's ESA -- the European Space Agency. And Rosetta has been a ten-year-long, anything-that-can-go-wrong-will-go-wrong kind of mission. Lack of power meant a two-year shutdown of the combined spacecraft. Nobody knew if this could be made to work. For years. Until now.

Now the mission is poised on the edge of unprecedented scientific discoveries. Philae has landed -- it was due to fire harpoon drills to grab the comet, reel the craft to its landing, and firmly anchor it -- not much different than mooring a small boat to a dock.

After initial belief that the harpoon anchors had fired, that is now in doubt. ESA confirms a soft landing, but the anxiety isn't over.

We've never been this close to this kind of knowledge. Among the complex questions that may be answered: did Earth get its abundance of water from cometary impacts, early on?

A comet is tiny, without much gravity, by space standards. Philae must "grab" and anchor itself to 67P before it can use its other drills -- samplling drills -- to bore into the comet to obtain material it will "cook" in its onboard lab.

We've never been this close to this kind of knowledge. Among the complex questions that may be answered: did Earth get its abundance of water from cometary impacts, early on?

Philae and Rosetta are both equipped with arrays of instruments and cameras, too. We may learn things we don't even know to ask yet.

In a sense, today's landing by ESA symbolizes the descent of NASA from the gold standard to a hollow shell systematically deprived of funding due to America's "austerity" era.

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Any fall from prominence is complete when one's position is ultimately passed by someone else. Today, it's the ESA. Next, it will likely be China. Unless Americans rise-up and demand we return to a real, science-and-exploration-based, active and aggressive space program.

Mars awaits -- someone. While Russia and the US are bound by a treaty not to make territorial claims on celestial bodies on which they land, China is not a signator to any such treaty.

larry-wines

The same goes for Europa, the moon of Jupiter that has more liquid water than the sum total of all the water on Earth. It's beneath an ice crust, but it's there, and it's liquid water. Same thing on a much smaller scale at Enceladus, an ice-crusted liquid-water moon of much more distant Saturn.

Want to find life somewhere other than Earth? Those are the places to go. Want to make rocket fuel to bring yourself back, or to go farther? Water makes liquid oxygen and liquid hydrogen, and that's all the rocket fuel you need.

We, as a species, are on the cusp of a Star Trek future. But we're too cheap to go.

Think of that when you see the news of drone strikes to protect oil supplies in some part of the world that wants to return to living in the 13th century. Think of that when you see "preparations for war" (the official statement) against your fellow citizens, the potential demonstrators in Ferguson, Missouri.

Then call your congressman and tell them to get off their megagiant-corporate-owned asses and re-fund NASA so we can go somewhere and learn something.
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CNN is doing a good job staying on top of the Rosetta-Philae mission.

Larry Wines