I get Facebook updates from the European Space Agency’s Rosetta Mission. They are timely, fact-filled mini-articles about recent image downloads and science that is being undertaken by the spacecraft, currently in orbit around the Comet 67P/Churyumov –Gerasimenko. This is an impressive feat and one that will likely add volumes to the study of comets and planetary formation, among many other things.

What really strikes me about these images, placed with seeming casualness on-line, is not how otherworldly the comet appears but how…in grey scales and shadow…it looks a little like the ocean floor. The other striking thing is that from the depths of the ocean to the farthest reaches of our solar system, the urge to explore and the ingenuity to do so is remarkable.

Over a year and a several months ago, as of this writing, a small lander touched down on the rugged surface of Comet 67P/Churyumov –Gerasimenko. And like a tourist on holiday to some exotic land Philae diligently sent back a series of intriguing pictures. There is other data as well, and the scientists are reporting trace organics and a surface consistency that is measurably harder than they expected. Yet my eyes keep going back to those pictures. I can’t get away from how there is something about the composition of this first picture from Philae that reminds me of one of Alvin’s first photos of an undersea hydrothermal vent. In one case the operator is bare inches away from the target, in the other, tens of millions of miles.

Alvin explores a vent (l), Philae lands on a comet (from the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute and ESA websites, respectively)

 Either way, the explorers are human and the robots we send are our ambassadors.

In the midst of all this wonder, in one very tiny corner of the world-spanning meta-community that is the internet, a minor brouhaha has erupted around the old idea that there is a dangerous competition between manned exploration and unmanned, robotic probes.

What? Humans and Robots fighting for budgetary supremacy? Nonsense, of course, but the very human need to carve out a niche of opinion nevertheless has a small camp of pro-manned spaceflight enthusiasts warning against our becoming too cozy with the idea of robotic exploration. The strategy applied in recent times is to accuse a given individual or organization of some sort of hypocrisy for not being total and complete adherents to one view of what space enthusiasts call The Dream.

Sigh: the internet. But hypocrisy by supporting a robotic mission? I don’t think so. Nor do I think that the old robots-vs-manned space argument can even be characterized as a debate these days. In a sense, they are two unique branches of a pathway that leads ever outward.

Yes, in all likelihood in 50, 100 or a 1000 years people will live and work on Luna, Mars, and the asteroids. But the first entities to arrive at these places will be robots who report back not just to scientists but the public who support them via tax dollars. I celebrate what our astronauts and cosmonauts do aboard the International Space Station. But when it became apparent to me that in my lifetime I might never again see humans venture beyond low Earth orbit, I decided to actively and enthusiastically follow the many robotic missions that are ongoing throughout the solar system. It is a fascinating time to be alive!

Robots: Mariner, Lunokhod, Viking, Venera, Voyager, Galileo, Magellan, Curiosity, Hayabusa, Chang’e, Rosetta and Philae. The list goes on and on. And the nationalities behind these endeavors represent quite a diversity of humanity. These machines venture outward into mystery, yet in my mind’s eye I can certainly see a gloved human hand sampling Martian soil or gathering the material of that far-away comet. But until that distant day arrives the bulk of us armchair-astronauts here on Earth will rely on our cybernetic avatars to bring us wonders just beyond the orbit of our lonely planet.

Enthusiasm for robotic, unmanned exploration doesn’t diminish The Dream, it’s one of the things that keep it alive. And surely someday humans of all stripes and outlook will follow the robots outward. Our descendants will take along all the complexity that being human allows. And while settling landscapes which we can only begin to imagine they will solve problems, build communities, grow families, play games, and celebrate holidays.

Worlds without end.


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