Travel, Culture Spur Cosmic Renaissance


This was an important week for humanity’s relationship with the cosmos. On Wednesday, the European Space Agency (ESA) landed the spacecraft Philae on a comet for the first time in human history. Last Friday, Christopher Nolan’s intergalactic epic “Interstellar,” starring actors Matthew McConaughey and Anne Hathaway hit theaters, making $130.6 million in its opening weekend. While the news of 2014 has been filled with negative stories, like those of ISIS, Russian aggression and the child migrant crisis, there is a quiet renaissance occurring in humanity’s interaction with the cosmos.

ESA’s mission to put a spacecraft on the comet, identified as 67P/C-G, is one of the most impressive feats of engineering in human history. The mission took 10 years, bringing Philae and the larger probe that was carrying it, Rosetta, all the way around the solar system twice, using planets’ gravity to build momentum. Then after these 10 years and millions of miles of travel, the spacecraft landed on a 2.5 mile wide comet.

The hardest part of all was actually landing Philae on the comet, which was traveling 84,000 miles per hour. The mission’s scientific aims are to analyze the comet’s composition, which has never been done before, increasing our understanding of the cosmos. This mission is a great next step in space exploration.

I don’t want to give too much away about the plot of Interstellar, and it has many plot twists and turns. But without revealing anything that was not in the preview, the movie is about a group of astronauts travelling through a wormhole to another galaxy to find a new habitable planet, as Earth is becoming uninhabitable due to climate change.  While the storyline is far from perfect, “Interstellar” does a spectacular job making some of the more mind-bending topics of physics — such as relativity, wormholes and black holes — comprehensible to laypeople.

Neither of these events will cause a paradigm shift in the way we view the universe, like putting a man on the moon or Copernicus discovering that we revolve around the sun did. Yet, they nonetheless are part of a flourishing in humanity’s interaction with outer space.

In January of this year, China became the third country to put a rover on the moon, after the United States and the USSR, and the first to do so since 1976. China sent a rover, named Yutu, to the moon’s surface to widespread fanfare in the country, although little coverage abroad.

In September, an Indian satellite entered Mars’ orbit, having been launched in November 2013.  Strikingly, the mission only cost $74 million — pocket change compared to the billion dollar price tags on NASA and ESA missions. The mission had a scientific purpose to try and detect methane, a sign of life, in the Martian atmosphere. But, more than that it was to demonstrate that India’s aspirations to be a great power, both terrestrially and extraterrestrially.

As India’s spacecraft went into orbit around the Red Planet, in September, Space X, a private space transport company, made history by becoming the first private company to do a resupply mission to the International Space Station. This is a landmark event in space exploration, as all previous major space missions had been done by government agencies, such as NASA. As space travel becomes privatized, with future government funded missions to be completed by private firms, the cost should go down exponentially because market forces will make private space firms have to compete with each other.  We are transitioning out of a time when government has a monopoly on space travel, stifling innovation and efficiency.

Space was also particularly prominent in pop culture this year, with the release of Fox’s reboot of the Carl Sagan classic miniseries “Cosmos,” this time hosted by astrophysicist Neil Degrasse Tyson. While the miniseries did not attract the stellar ratings that were expected, it nonetheless had a wide viewership, with over 40 million viewers from around the world tuning into the first episode.

All of these developments, when taken individually, are all quite profound and impressive (as is most everything relating to the cosmos). But, when taken together, they mark the beginning of something even more spectacular, a humanity-wide embrace of the cosmos.  This will be a grand recognition of space as something that we are part of and should engage with.

Since past eras, the stars have been an integral part of the human condition, such as a means of navigation for the ancients, and during the Cold War, another sphere of power to be utilized for military and nationalistic purposes. Now though, we finally have the opportunity to continuously engage with the cosmos in new and profound ways, bettering our understanding of the universe and contributing to technological progress.

Ben Perlmutter is a College junior from Chappaqua, New York.