Worth the Trip?

Talk about a long trip.

A European spacecraft traveled for 10 years and some 4 billion miles and had to slingshot three times around Earth and once around Mars so it could work up enough speed to chase down a speeding comet with the rather challenging name of 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko.

Last Wednesday, the lander, called Philae — which is about the size of a washing machine — descended from the space probe which took it on its lengthy voyage and successfully managed to reach the icy, dusty surface of the comet, which itself travels at 41,000 mph. The landing required immense precision, as even the slightest error could have resulted in disaster.

Despite the fact that the thrusters that were meant to push it onto the surface and harpoons that would have anchored it to the comet failed to deploy properly, Philae bounced twice and landed on the comet.

Though the lander came to rest next to a cliff that blocked sunlight from its solar panels, it still managed to accomplish two tricky maneuvers Friday before running out of battery power: It drilled into the rocky surface and rotated itself to catch more sunlight.

This extraordinary mission stretched the limits of human ingenuity, and was yet another proof of the wisdom that Hashem has seen fit to entrust to man.

Yet even as those on earth marveled at the news of yet another breakthrough in space exploration, the time has come once again to question whether this $1.6 billion project is truly the most appropriate use of such an astronomical sum of money and human resources.

Space exploration has long fascinated people the world over. During the Cold War it was also a matter of national prestige, and the United States and the Soviet Union raced to be first to put a man on the moon.

Proponents of these efforts point to the many discoveries that were made — inadvertently or otherwise — by scientists working to further space exploration. Indeed, the long list of such inventions — from metals which are now used to make various types of medical tools, to an array of high-tech defense systems that help save lives of civilians and further military goals, to improving the accuracy of weather forecasting — is impressive.

This argument, however, rings hollow when one considers the fact that these vast sums of money — NASA’s total inflation-adjusted costs have topped $900 billion since its creation in 1958, and this doesn’t include the huge sums spent by the Soviets, the EU, and other countries — could have been directly applied to researching inventions in each of the aforementioned areas. While, ultimately, who invents what and when is decided in Heaven, it is very possible that the same inventions would have been discovered at much lower costs.

After years of spectacular successes, as of late, NASA has been singularly unsuccessful in making positive headlines. While its new Orion spacecraft is now at the launch pad for next month’s test flight, that new spacecraft isn’t scheduled to carry astronauts until 2021.

Three years after the space shuttle program was finally retired, no replacement is in sight. Despite tension between the two countries, America has to depend on Putin’s Russia to get its astronauts to and from the International Space Station, at the hefty ticket price of $70 million per person, per trip.

Now it is the Europeans who, by landing a spacecraft on a speeding comet, are making history.

But can they really afford it?

According to a report by the Red Cross, much of Europe is plagued with poverty.  Millions of Europeans are lining up for food in soup kitchens, and formerly middle-class citizens are living in trailers, tents, railway stations or shelters for the homeless, hesitating to go to the Red Cross, Red Crescent and other organizations to ask for help.

Millions are affected by the worst economic crisis in six decades; a crisis that has seen people lose their jobs and homes, although they never imagined it could happen; a crisis which has made the poor even poorer.

There are now more than 43 million Europeans who do not get enough to eat each day. While $1.6 billion wouldn’t solve poverty in Europe, if that money had been used to create more jobs for the lower and middle classes, it would have made a real difference.

As the tragic saga of Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 proved, there is much about Earth that we know nothing about. Nine months after it disappeared without trace during a flight from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing with 239 people on board, no sign of the plane or its passengers has been located.

The search — which recommenced last month — was put on hold for four months so crews could map the seabed in the search zone. It seems that the current 23,000-square-mile search area, which lies about 1,100 miles west of Australia, was largely unknown to scientists before the mapping process began.

Rather than spend billions trying to learn about distant comets, it would cost far less to study the deep crevasses, mountains and volcanoes of the sea floor right here on Earth, and the extra money could be used to help countless suffering humans. n