Monday, January 16, 2006

Portentuous sample canister



The Moon used to be a goddess. We went there, made tracks, planted flags, brought bits back. The planets were gods as well, once. We've photographed them and their moons and sent little buggies trudging through the Martian sand dunes, brandishing diamond drills and spectrometers in the face of the God of War. Only Pluto, half-assed icy Kuiper planetoid and Lord of the Underworld, remains to check out.

All of this is unbelievably cool. But Sunday, we got a delivery that in some ways beats them all. Humanity just went out and fetched itself a chunk of a Celestial Portent of Doom.

Comets used to scare the shit out of people. These long-haired stars would show up, seemingly with no regard for astronomical time tables, sometimes shining like kingdom come, and then disappear again. In 1683 the Ottoman Turks lifted a perfectly viable siege of Vienna and withdrew, probably because a huge shining sword suddenly appeared in the sky, pointing at the crescent moon, the symbol sitting on top of every mosque in the Empire.

NASA launched a probe at comet Wild 2 in 1999. It arrived a year ago, sent home pictures of the thing, showing it to be pretty weird even for a comet, collected samples of the sandstormy tail, and headed home to Earth. Sunday, the sample canister landed neatly in the Utah desert.

Now, this is exactly the sort of thing the space agencies should be doing. I want many affordable unmanned science missions, please. Sending people to the Moon again and then to Mars is a bad idea, because it'll dry up the funding for interesting science missions and almost certainly kill a number of astronauts.

Sending a human on a space mission is like using a laptop computer to hammer nails into wood. Humans are fragile, require complicated life support systems and are vastly overqualified for the job. Why should we equip our space probes with biomachinery that is capable of playing the piano and writing novels, and whose families will be worried sick for them for years? No. If you've got nails to hit, buy a hammer to get the work done. And then write a novel about it on your laptop.

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