Around a quarter of a century ago, someone decided to send a space probe to Saturn. And in 1997, that’s exactly what they did. The space probe Cassini took seven years to get there and spent 13 years circling the planet. It is now about to embark on its swansong (or swan dive) into the rings of Saturn, where it will spend months collecting data – pictures, gas analyses and so on. It may eventually collide with a moon and disintegrate. It’s not coming back to Earth, because there are likely to be microbes in and around Saturn, and we don’t need an interplanetary plague so soon after our AIDs, SARS and Zika hysteria. Good call, NASA.
Last week Cassini showed us a wealth of new information. Like a multi-page spreadsheet of WTF observations. It will take a few years to figure out what the new information actually tells us, so perhaps Cassini’s astonishing discoveries still have a long way to go before we’re astonished out.
The total cost so far has been US$3.2bn spent over 25 years – which, in today’s dollars, is more like US$6bn.
So someone thought it was worth spending some billions of dollars on the offchance we might learn something useful a quarter of a century later. Sounds visionary, driven, belief-powered, committed. Sounds like the spirit of the human race we should bottle and sell to less impressive interstellar beings.
But no. That bottling-and-selling would require disingenuous marketing. Because, back here on Earth, we struggle mightily with 3–year plans on just about anything to do with solving the problems we face. We commit, uncommit, recommit and then change the plan entirely to get more votes. Corporations talk boldly of 20 year visions for humanity during photo-op conventions, but develop progressive myopia as they go about their day-to-day business.
Back here on Earth, the problems are real and the solutions often stare us in the face. We do not have to wrestle with the vast unknowns of the rings of Saturn, or guess/hope there is paydirt at the end of it. We know there is paydirt right here; in our seventeen Sustainable Development Goals. Light doesn’t have to travel billions of kilometres to pass onto us a flicker of awareness; we can see poverty, taste hunger, smell disease, hear gender inequality, feel the hurdle of under-education.
We, the human race, celebrate (as we should) the audacity of spending billions on checking out something we can’t see to figure out if there could be some new information that we might one day be able to use. Why then do we ponderously debate the worthiness and cost-benefits of efforts on solving the perfectly solvable global problems of our time?