If you haven’t been hiding under a rock these past several weeks, you’ve probably heard about the the Rosetta Mission. Wasn’t that about some kind of satelite? Something to do with a comet? Maybe even the name of J.J. Abrams’ next space odyssey blockbuster. If you don’t know the particulars, let us refresh: in truth, it sounds like something from an L. Ron Hubbard novel, and indeed the galactic quest of an enduring space probe, is nothing short of science fiction. An extraordinary summit of mankind’s innovation and acumen – a beacon for posterity – the landing of Rosetta, a robotic space probe, on a 10 billion tonne rock, 4 billion years old, hurdling through space at 40,000 mph, should be hailed as one of the most prolific accomplishments of our generation. Brilliantly pioneered by the European Space Agency, Rosetta is a 20-year project in the making, that brought together generations of people, many of whom dedicated their entire lives to the probe’s incredible journey. Launched the 2nd of March, 2004, Rosetta reached comet 67P on the 6th of August, 2014. It is the first spacecraft to orbit and successfully land on a comet. And yet, when put into context, despite the sensational reality of such a feat, to many, the Rosetta mission at face-value may appear superfluous, a waste of precious resource and money, especially in light of the current global financial climate. Could its 1.4 billion euro cost have been spent on something more economically advantageous or profitable? Perhaps something more philanthropic such as world hunger? For those unscientifically-inclined minds, Rosetta may seem like a simple garish display of human mastermind. A vainglorious gesture. The cache: Why do we do it? Because we can. It’s true. Billion dollar budgets are notoriously easy to scrutinized, just for the sheer magnitude of their figures. The Sochi Olympics cites the perfect example. A heinous mockery of global deprivation, democracy and inequality in the face of billionaire blasé. But surely Rosetta is not even in the same region, let alone the same ball park. Science has its very real and true place in humanity’s ambitious development, with significant, profound, far-reaching effects to boot.
The unprecedented Rosetta mission endeavored to complete the most detailed study of a comet ever attempted. Appropriately named after the Rosetta Stone, a stele of Egyptian origin featuring a decree in three scripts that revolutionized our understanding of the past, likewise, the European Space Agency’s protégé, will allow scientists to unravel the mysteries of comets: indeed, the oldest building blocks of our Solar System left intact from it’s birth and infancy. Still thinking PR Gimmick by the scientific community? Think again. Rosetta may have generated more likes and upvotes on social media, raising the public profile of science, but it is definitely no artifice. In fact, Rosetta may very well be the next biggest leap for mankind, one that leaves an imprint on industry, technology, social science, philosophy, history, and perhaps even the very evolution of our species. But before we get ahead of ourselves, for those economically-mindful critics, let’s talk dollars and cents. Or in this case, euros.
The 1.4 billion euro cost of the Rosetta mission covers development and construction of the spacecraft and all of its instruments, including the lander, its launch and operations. To put it into context, if we were to divide that number by the 20 years of development, from its inception in 1996 to its completion in 2015, contemporaries such as physicist Andrew Steele, have calculated the cost has put European citizens out 0.20 cents per year. That is a fraction of what most spend on movie tickets and magazines. But who can put a price on scientific knowledge? Comparatively, while the same cost may comfortable pay for four A380 jumbo jets, it would barely cover half the price of a modern submarine, and when considering that the total cost of USA’s military budget, when including external funding directly connected to American military spending, is closer to $1 trillion per year, these expenditures should really be put into some kind of perspective. Canada’s conservative government has spent nearly half a billion on outside legal fees since it came into power in 2006 and more than $450,000 to defend the Prime Minister, his staff and ministers. If we take these kinds of figures into consideration, skeptics of the Rosetta mission may want to be slightly more lenient on the European Space Agency’s stringent budget. It’s true that frugalities and economies have been made when considering missions like Rosetta by the ESA. Due to the extensive length of the mission project, much of Rosetta’s components were designed and manufactured near the beginning of the decade or earlier, at a time when materials were somewhat inexpensive due to inflation. In addition, while the initial objective for Rosetta was to be a sample-return mission, surmounting costs meant that scientists had to be satisfied with simply landing a spacecraft on a speeding comet. Indeed the incredible low cost of the mission when compared against the vast lexicon of government spending, serves as a reminder that sending probes into space is much cheaper than sending people. Earlier this year, for less than the cost of the film, Gravity, India successfully put a probe in orbit around Mars.
So while you may still be inclined to believe that funding subscriptions of the 20 member states of the European Space Agency to it’s space projects is a waste, you may want to look at the particular benefits of the Rosetta mission. Studies show that government funding into scientific research has a direct effect on the economy, in some cases, helping it to grow by a staggering 20%. Despite all this space jargon, the monies don’t go to comets or asteroids or other such cosmic “debris,” rather it is spent here on Earth, creating thousands of jobs, new technologies, (more specifically in Rosetta’s case, Low-intensity Low Temperature Solar Cells, temperature controlling systems, and other highly innovative subsystems, some of which have been reused in other ESA missions), and industries throughout Europe. Probing forms of scientific inquiry about the world around us are vital to initiating change in our society and to our quality of life. Whether a downstream effect of the building blocks of basic research, or in a more deliberately applied way, parallels can be made from science across all factions industry. For example, one can’t design a new cancer drug unless one understands the mechanisms that cause cancer in a cell. Another such example is the World Wide Web, which developed out of a system designed to help particle physicists communicate more efficiently. Similarly, a recent increase in numbers of A-level students taking physics at university is no coincidence. Missions like Rosetta, generate a higher profile for science in the media. Television programs made widely available, such as The Cosmos, and celebrities such as Bill the Science Guy and Niel Degrasse Tyson, are apart of a greater think tank that labours to get people talking and engaged. Rather than thinking about Rosetta and its contemporaries as gimmicks, like most of the reality TV which litters our cable, these people and projects awaken the youth to newfound sympathies – to stir the brewing cauldrons of imagination. The youth, who may one day become our world’s leading scientists and engineers, are first inspired by the introduction of Rosetta and like projects. Of course, while the directly applied research of the Rosetta mission is to find answers to very fundamental questions about the history of our planet, how it evolved and if life really emerged on earth or rather was brought to earth by comets like 67P billions of years ago, (by detecting water, ice or complex carbon compounds found on the surface of these relatively unchanged chunks of space rock) the trickle down effect of such an innovative scientific feat is not something to be overlooked by critics, skeptics, tax payers and economists alike. It is important that we all understand the offshoot effects of what may initially appear as pure science, or knowledge for knowledge sake. Scientific research and understanding contributes to the stockpile of human awareness and insight that consecutively and consequently, turns over the engines of our innovation and evolution. The advancement of knowledge always holds relevance and applicability to everyday life, in the practical and profound. 1.4 billion euros. What is it worth to you?