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Common Cents

Philae, the little probe that could

Ralph Murphy

(12/2014) The landing of the Philae space probe on a 2.5 mile wide comet over 300 million miles from earth was a major achievement for the little heralded European Space Agency (ESA). It proved the event was possible on such a distant and rapidly moving object, and unleashed euphoria among participant national providers which might be harnessed for more worldly endeavors.

Philae also has important scientific application as organic microorganisms were detected on the surface of the comet following a ten-year flight from earth. Additional data couldn't be transmitted as it lost battery power, but might be forthcoming and revealing should the craft’s solar panels restore power. It is hoped that the comet can help unlock secrets specific to the origin of the earth and universe not available to our planet's land or space based optics.

Space probes and related technologies were a twentieth century phenomenon founded initially in defense related objectives of the former Soviet Union. The Soviets had a history of achievement in the field with a number of historic firsts including the first Intercontinental Ballistic Missile launch and Sputnik – the first satellite in space. What appears to have begun as a hegemonic defense effort, exploded into a propaganda coup when Yuri Gagarin became the first human to pierce earth's orbit in April 1961.

The Americans were shocked at the Soviet success. As a result, the National Space Administration Agency (NASA) program, begun in the 1958 Eisenhower administration, suddenly gained national attention when President Kennedy promised a man on the moon by the end of the decade.

As the Americans struggled to get their space program off the ground, the Soviets scored propaganda coup after propaganda coup, being the firsts to send a woman in space, first to send an unmanned lander to the moon, first to put a space station in space, and the first to launch an interplanetary probe. Again and again, the world was spellbound with Soviet technology, and with it, the Soviet way of life.

That all ended when Neal Armstrong stepped onto the moon in 1969's successful Apollo 11 mission. Estimates have been that over half the world watched that first step, and with it, the world’s perception of American changed almost overnight. Suddenly we were the country everyone wanted to live in. We were the country everyone looked up to.

The Soviets were never able to match the technology required of the complex manned lunar landing and return, and while their space program continued right up to the demise of the Soviet Union, it exploits rarely, if ever, made news outside the Soviet Union. While the U.S. and Soviet Union monopolized the press coverage, they were not alone in seeking out the benefits of space exploration.

The European Space Agency, founded in 1975 and headquartered in Paris, is composed of 20 member states. The mission of the ESA is focused on unmanned missions such as exploration of moon & plants, earth observation, and science telecommunication among other venues.

The Indian Space Research Organization was launched less than a month after Apollo 11 captivated the world's attention with the successful lunar landing in 1969. In 1975, the Indians sent their first satellite into space. Due to funding shortfalls, the India program struggled, but it found its feet again in September 2014 when it successfully put an orbiter around Mars, a source of real pride for a nation so wracked in poverty issues.

China did not become active in the "space game" until 2003 with Yang Liwei's successful flight to the earth orbit aboard the Shenzon 5. In December 2014, they successfully placed rover Yulu on the moon. Those endeavors were a source of real national pride.

However, where the world's space programs proceed from the present is difficult to predict. NASA's has shifted its focus away from the International Space Station to more scientific oriented efforts, such as the Mars Rover, deep space science probes to Jupiter and Saturn, and a multitude of deep space telescopes focused on unraveling the mysteries of the formation of the universe.

China has a Space Station on its drawing board for 2020 as well as manned expeditions to the moon and Mars. India may be in "over its head," but like the Chinese’s program, it’s a great source of pride for the country

The Russian space program however has been relegated to serving as a taxi service shuttling astronauts to and from the International Space station. Even that role will soon come to an end as commercial launch providers in the U.S. will soon be stepping forward to fill that role. For Russia, the high profile successes of the early days of the Soviet space industry, which held the world in awe, are now but a distant memory. While the Russians appear to want to regain that lost glory, they lack an effective means to do so, having failed to invest in space infrastructure.

Sadly, Russia has apparently opted to try to regain the awe of the world by displaying military might, and in doing so, setting the stage for what some have called a second cold war. Unlike the first cold war however, this cold war is not about a battle of ideologies or ideas – for the Russians have none this time around. For them, it’s about brute force, and brute force alone.

Unfortunately, for the Russian’s, they are up against avarices who are overflowing with good ideas. These are ideas that can rally whole people across national boundaries to one case. History has shown that while military might prevail in the short term, it has never prevailed against ideas that better the lives of people.

All of Russia’s military is unable to put a dent into the awe that the world holds for a 175 pound probe that did the impossible. Philae may very well be our David to today’s Russian Goliath. And our David has already proved it has a good aim!

There is an old saying – "A dying animal bites its own wounds." As long as the West keeps looking for ways to advance all mankind, Russia will fall further and further behind, and one day it will be relegated to history’s dustbin.

Ralph Murphy is a former member of the CIA Headquarters Staff in Langley, VA.

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