A 6.6-billion-kilometer space mission flew with the spirit of Paris' Notre Dame cathedral and some of the old continent's other great achievements of vision and steadfastness.
PARIS — Mission accomplished for European robot probe Rosetta. After traveling across the universe for more than 10 years and covering 6.6 billion kilometers — passing two asteroids and slingshotting around the Earth three times in the process — Rosetta freed the Philae lander on Wednesday.
The lander hit its target, Comet 67P/Churyumov–Gerasimenko, and instantly started studying the nature of this 4-kilometer-wide, potato-shaped icy comet, a witness to the genesis of our solar system.
This feat will bear significant fruit if Philae remains attached to the comet. But this is already an unprecedented achievement for the European Space Agency, which demonstrates ambition, vision, patience, ingenuity and, not least, independence.
Rosetta's origins date back almost 30 years. It emerged from the Horizon 2000 program, adopted in 1985 by the member states of the European Space Agency (ESA), which is completely distinct from the European Union. After 15 fruitless years, the ESA was granted a considerable long-term budget, giving the agency the means to decide on its own projects, independent from an often unfaithful NASA.
Rosetta sets a resounding example. Approved in 1993, launched in 2004 and finally reaching its destination this year, it symbolizes a form of the "spirit of the cathedral era" that gives some scientific programs their greatness: Like the first architects of Notre Dame de Paris — who of course never saw its completion a century later — some of the minds behind the Rosetta mission were no longer on the project to participate first-hand in this week's landing.
Because science is programmed and financed by political decision-makers these days, it sometimes lacks both a long view and a sense of selflessness, traits that would go a long way to bring back its magic. There's also a form a poetry in going after comet tails, and this dimension is essential to kindle scientific vocations that are currently lacking.
Still, Rosetta's success, which in the end will have cost 1.4 billion euros ($1.7 billion) — the cost of four Airbus 380s, according to ESA — is a symbol of the Old Continent's significance in the global space competition. Europe is still a scientific pioneer, though it must be careful that the Rosetta effort is remembered as more than just a fleeting investment in the space race.
Europe must also be wary of being too dependent on its partners, even though "Big Science" encourages international financing. To be relevant, we can't be on a jump seat. On top of having withdrawn from Rosetta and other programs, the United States might now pull out of the ITER fusion reactor project.
Just as China is quickly gaining pace in numerous scientific projects — particle physics, genetics, space, etc. — Europe must keep this taste for exploration alive and cultivate it. It's what drove a 100-kilogram refrigerator-sized space probe to the surface of an ice cube lost in the cosmos.