Catch a comet, catch some inspiration

Europe's landing of the Philae probe on a comet from the Rosetta orbiter reflects not only a remarkable feat, it also shows why nations use space exploration to spur Earth-bound inspiration and innovation.

AP Photo
French officials, including President Francois Hollande, center, wear 3D glasses as they watch a Nov. 12 broadcast in Paris of the Rosetta mission to the comet 67/P Churyumov-Gersimenko.

In a first for space history, the European Space Agency landed a probe on a comet Wednesday, a remarkable feat. The comet, a duck-shaped mash of ice and dust, is a mere 2.5 miles wide and more than 300 million miles away.

Yet the agency also landed something else, only back on Earth: a renewed hope that Europe can revive its ingenuity and innovation.

More nations now realize that space exploration serves a purpose beyond scientific discovery or practical results such as GPS navigation. It sets a model for how to achieve breakthroughs in thought. And nothing quite inspires young people to think the unthinkable like the audacious idea, first proposed in the 1970s, to reach for a comet. These objects contain secrets of the early universe.

For Europe, which worries about losing its competitive edge in technology, the Rosetta orbiter and its lander, Philae, are just one of many “big science” efforts at making discoveries and also stirring  creativity. Others include the building of the world’s most powerful neutron beam and the world’s largest radio telescope. In 2009, the space agency – a joint project of 20 countries – joined up with the European Union to declare a “Year of Creativity and Innovation.”

Governments are still the main thruster in space projects. In China’s case, the military runs the show. In India, the government’s frugal but efficient approach led it to put an orbiter around Mars this year at a cost less than the making of the movie “Gravity.”

Yet innovation in space is becoming less government driven, seen in the United States with private launch companies like Space X. Such a transition reflects a desire to tap private rather than national competition as a way to spur freedom of thinking and to rely less on a bureaucracy like the National Aeronautics and Space Administration. With that freedom, of course, comes the freedom to fail, as seen in the recent failure of a private rocket – another lesson in innovation.

Much of today’s space exploration has already transcended nationalist pride through collaborative international projects. This does more than simply spread the costs. Creative science often comes at the edges of disciplines, a breaking of boundaries. Each nation brings different ways of thinking about innovation.

The father of modern rocket science, Robert Goddard, wrote that he first thought of inventing a device for “ascending to Mars” by looking out at a beautiful New England meadow in autumn. He wondered what it would look like from space.

A similar imagination probably led scientists to speculate what a comet would look like up close. Now we all know. Now we all are inspired.

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