Today, the Cassini mission has ended, the spacecraft diving into Saturn‘s atmosphere, transmitting its final observations almost in real time as its thrusters struggled to maintain its orientation for one final minute, before being overwhelmed. Once that happened, the probe would have started tumbling uncontrollably, being torn apart probably less than a minute later.
The mission itself was an unquestionable success, all the way to these final moments, which seem to have gone exactly according to plan, if not even better. In terms of making the most, and the most interesting, observations, of obtaining the best science out of what the spacecraft could still provide all the way to the end, this may have been the best course of action. However, the day is a terribly sad one, and not merely in the sense of a perceived loss of something that some might have developed an emotional attachment to. It is a sad day for space exploration and for humanity in general, the end of Cassini only highlighting our collective failing, our collective blindness. It reminds us that we once used to look up and dream with our eyes wide open, and that we don’t anymore.
Pioneer 11, planned through the 1960s and approved in 1969, was the first spacecraft to explore a solar system body beyond Jupiter, performing a flyby of Saturn in 1979. By then, the Voyagers were already launched, Voyager 2 remaining the only spacecraft to reach Uranus and Neptune, in 1986 and 1989, respectively. By then, Cassini had already been approved.
Now, with the end of the Cassini mission, humanity is left with not only no active mission exploring any planet beyond Jupiter, but with none approved or even actually planned for the future either. And after New Horizons‘ flyby of 2014 MU69 on the first day of 2019, there will be nothing even planned for any sort of solar system body beyond Jupiter at all. Worse, while clear plans for the continued exploration of Jupiter and its moons do at least exist, after Dawn and Juno will end there will also be a period when nothing will be active on or around any solar system body beyond Mars at all. And with the Voyagers and New Horizons expected to no longer have enough power to remain operational at some point in the 2020s, there will come a time when nothing at all will be active beyond Jupiter, and depending on the exact timing perhaps even a window of time when nothing at all will be active even beyond Mars.
Decades ago we could do these things, we could both look up and explore beyond our little ball of rock and metal, and at the same time look down and start taking care of our fragile home, or at least meaning to. And we did that even though we knew far less and even what information did exist was far more difficult to obtain, even though our level of development, whether technological or of any other kind, was far lower, even though fewer countries even had the capacity to get involved, even though there were more armed conflicts and unrest, and even though even GDPs, for those who care about this rotten finance-based economy, were far lower. But now, despite massive improvements in all those aspects, we apparently can’t do it anymore. Which only means we simply don’t want to, we just no longer care.
There was that statement, that the end of the Cassini mission is also a new beginning, but how can they say that? A new beginning of what? A new Dark Age? How can humanity find any excuse for itself? After well over 50 years, we stopped looking up, we stopped caring for what’s out there, and we’re definitely not doing much better about what’s down here either. Now it’s not just the power struggles, which existed all along, but the economic interests that are by far the main obstacle blocking any of the right paths. That’s the main reason why we keep trashing Earth, and the main reason why space exploration has been brought to its knees.
Down here everything apparently needs to make economic sense, to pay in some way, even though the concept of money is completely artificial and has no value or meaning outside human society, and even within human society it only has the value and meaning we choose to give it. And this mindset is now expanding to cover what goes on up there as well, with more and more projects having to do with space being handed over to the private sector, or being taken by it directly, even though the private sector’s primary goal is always to generate profit, to use real resources and the time and effort of people in order to do or make something for which other people will be willing to pay more of this artificial and irrelevant “resource” than was spent, any good things that may sometimes happen as a result of such actions only being fortunate side effects.
If we’ll go to some asteroids, or get back to the Moon, it seems that it won’t be out of a desire for knowledge or to prove to ourselves that we can still achieve something great, but more probably in order to mine or otherwise obtain something that will then be sold down here for a significant profit. Even if some humans may end up on Mars, maybe in the 2030s, instead of an outstanding collaborative achievement of the human race, one meant to inspire all to strive for a greater and nobler future, it’ll probably just serve to inflate some entrepreneur’s ego even more… And possibly even result in a reality show. As for anything beyond Mars, that doesn’t seem likely to generate profits at the moment, so you see the result. Instead of our continued development translating into more and better efforts in this area, what we see is less, and eventually none at all.
Wrote about this great failure of ours, one of so many, back in 2014 as well, after it was announced that the last phase of the Cassini mission will be named The Grand Finale. And I guess I’ll end this post with the same Babylon 5 quote I included in the one I wrote back then: “When you stumble a lot, you… You start looking at your feet. We have to make people lift their eyes back to the horizon and see the line of ancestors behind us saying ‘Make my life have meaning.’ And to our inheritors before us saying ‘Create the world we will live in.’ I mean, we’re not just holding jobs and having dinner. We are in the process of building the future.”
While I’m at it, though it feels a bit odd to quote a part I wrote in a post on a certain topic in another one on the same topic, I’ll also repeat what I added there after the above quote: “Too many people forget that. Too many care only about their pockets, stomach and groin, and at most those of a few loved ones as well. Too many focus only on the here and now, on immediate problems and instant gratification. Too many are only concerned with quick gains and practical results. Too many stumble merely because they refuse to open their eyes and lift their heads enough to see the cracks, hurdles, twists and turns ahead… And too many who would look and go farther are brought down by them as they writhe and crawl through the mud and dirt.“