Philae: a waste of money?

An interesting strand in the online newspaper reactions to the Philae landing has been to query whether money should have been spent on it at all. One argument against such expenditure is that the money would have been better spent down here on earth.

In the collaborative blog ‘Write Science’ Shane Larson offers a very nice response to this argument:

‘There are some who question whether we needed to spend a billion Euros to voyage into space. That’s fine; it is right to question what we do with the pool of money that we as a society grudgingly set aside for great endeavours like this. But don’t let the idea of waste fool you; all of that money was spent here on Earth, not on Comet 67P/Churyumov–Gerasimenko. It paid for a miner to extract titanium ore from the ground; it paid for an electrician to wire the power harness that kept Philae alive for 10 years; it paid for a machinist to make a precision mounting bracket on a rocket engine; it paid a truck driver to transport the liquid oxygen to the launch facility in French Guiana; it paid for an engineer to design efficient solar cells that (in this case) can work for 10 years in the vacuum of space; it paid for a student intern who learned to program guidance computers in a basement in Germany, but is now going to use that knowledge in medical school to program micro-precision surgical robots. And a hundred thousand other parts and people.’

You can find the full post at:

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5 Responses to Philae: a waste of money?

  1. Meho says:

    The question could have been be ask long time before… Why wait a non-usa project to ask this?

  2. The issue is not _money_, but _resources_. Should the miner extract the titanium ore to the detriment of his health and that of the environment? And if he does, should it be used for this purpose? Should all this energy be expended, which will speed up climate change and hurt the planet we live on? Etc.

    Mind you, I’m not saying it’s not worth it (have not made my mind up about this), I’m just saying the writer is being disingenuous. We can print as much money as we want and have it circulate to our heart’s content but our resources and our planet are finite quantities.

  3. Trifocal says:

    Hadn’t occurred to me to think about the resource costs before you raised it- thank you. So I had a look at Wiki to try to see the direct resources used.
    The materials needed to make and fuel an Ariane launcher rocket and the probe itself weigh very roughly 750 metric tons/tonnes. At a guess this is no more material (or metal) than goes into one very large luxury yacht.
    I do not know how to work out a direct energy-use cost in terms of resources, but the main rocket uses liquid oxygen and hydrogen, not fossil fuels. However the solid fuel booster rockets must certainly use scarcer materials- cannot figure out which they are though from the Wiki account.
    The satellite and lander themselves are ecological star performers; they travelled millions of miles from Earth orbit to the comet almost exclusively using gravity, while all communications and on-lander machinery appears to be solar powered. (And they probably contain less metal than you would find in an average US or European kitchen.)
    So imo probably not a bad project in terms of direct resource demands actually.

    • Belated thanks for doing my research.:) And as I said, I wasn’t saying it wasn’t worth it, just objecting to the writers red herring. And now that it’s out there, I’m certainly hoping Philae will go back online once it gets a bit of solar energy.

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