Missions from the station explored the system, a program far from public understanding, but it met no strong opposition.
So quietly, very matter of factly, that first probe went out to the two nearest stars, unmanned, to gather data and return, a task in itself of considerable complexity. The launch from station drew some public interest, but years was a long time to wait for a result, and it passed out of media interest as quickly as it did out of the solar system... It was a scientific success, bringing back data enough to keep the analysts busy for years...but there was no glib, slick way to explain the full meaning of its observations in layman's terms...
The press grappled with questions it could not easily grasp itself, sought after something to give the viewers, lost interest quickly. If anything, there were questions raised about cost, vague and desperate comparisons offered to Columbus, and the press hared off quickly onto a political crisis in the Mediterranean, much more comprehensible and far bloodier.
The scientific establishment on Sol station breathed a sign of relief..."
Downbelow Station: The Company Wars (1982 Hugo Award)
As much as we laugh today about the foolishness of our ancestors who believed that Earth was the center of the universe, our attitudes about space and space exploration have not really progressed much: we believe we are still the center of all that matters in the universe. Our egos probably couldn't take the truth which is that we are pretty darn insignificant. Long after the nation-states, the politics, our gods, the monuments to human hubris and all our petty feuds and feelings are dust, the sun, the star around which we orbit, will still be shining in the sky until it too burns itself out. This is the real longue durée.
The exploration of space is something that captures the public's imagination for short periods before it sinks back into obscurity. This is probably a good thing because in a world of national budget problems, the reaction that comes after the awe that we walked on the moon or that a shuttle returned to Earth is something along the lines of "Well, shouldn't we have used that money for balancing the budget/better schools/saving our retirement programs?"
To which I would retort that NASA's and ESA's budgets combined are such a low percentage of the overall budgets that cutting them (which they do often) would barely make a dent in the deficits. Personally, I would rather my tax money went to probes as opposed to drones.
This very week, Philae, the European Space Agency probe, landed on the comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko. And I find that unbelievably cool. They shot the Rosetta mission out into space in 2004 and it's been quietly hurtling toward its destination ever since while we here on Earth have watched parties and politicans rise and fall, fought wars, winced over a near meltdown of the world financial system, and agonized over the trials and tribulations of globalization.
Rash, improbable, and impractical? Well, as Cherryh points out, past human endeavours have certainly been all that and more. But the day we, the human race, stop being curious and no longer dream of space, we will have lost something precious - it would mean that we were in such deep despair that we could no longer conceive of a future for ourselves or for our descendants.
Here is a wonderful video from ESA with the first reactions to the landing. I confess that I watched it and I was cheering, too.
I also recommend to you this a lovely animated sketch called Landing
More to come - landing on the comet was a beginning, not an end, right?
A suivre and let's brace ourselves to be surprised, open ourselves to wonder, let our curiosity run riot and our imagination take us to ever more stimulating flights of fancy. For as Haldane once said:
I have no doubt that in reality the future will be vastly more surprising than anything I can imagine. Now my own suspicion is that the Universe is not only queerer than we suppose, but queerer than we can suppose.