Mankind often inflicts atrocities on itself, like war or the time it invented selfies. But every now and then, it does something that makes you drown in a puddle of goosebumps. I’m referring, of course, to the fact that we managed to accurately land a probe on a comet a few hundred million miles away. I’m going to say ‘we’ like I had something to do with it, even though I cannot accurately land a shawarma into my mouth without getting some on my shirt.
In case you’re dead inside and do not appreciate the enormity of what we’ve achieved, please read on.
The planning for this journey began twenty five years ago. Picture a group of scientists sitting around in 1989, trying to find answers to the origin of the universe, when one them suddenly says, “I know! Let’s land a probe on a comet hurtling through space at 40,000 miles per hour!” It takes a certain kind of crazy to think of something like that at a time when the average computer had the processing power of vada pao.
Once that was decided, they needed to find a comet to land on. This was easy because they weren’t distracted by Twitter every six seconds. The comet is four kilometres across, and at half the size of Kim Kardashian’s bottom, that sounds big enough. But it’s still a tiny dot. The Rosetta craft, which carried the Philae lander, was launched ten years ago when this dot was in some remote corner of the solar system. (Maybe Chhatisgarh. I don’t know.)
Imagine firing a bullet into the sky and hoping it will hit a moving target ten years later, except that to get to the target, the bullet will have to travel 6.4 billion kilometres. The journey involved gravity assists from Earth and Mars, in what I imagine as a giant game of cosmic football. This was then followed by more precison manouevres that allowed Rosetta to follow the comet like the world’s most hi-tech stalker. If you sit and think about the complexities long enough, you might feel a sudden surge of happiness, which means that Science is flicking her warm tongue all over your brain, and you should let her.
This achievement also made Indian people look at the ESA team and think, “Wow, these guys will get solid dahej now, no?” It’s the kind of feat that makes you appreciate just how dumb you are. I don’t get how these rocket scientists manage to not walk around, waggling their superiority in the world’s face. If I were in their place, I’d be the most condescending prick ever. My reply to “Honey, can you pick up some milk from the store?” would be, “I can pick up some milk from a goddamn comet, so shut yo mouth, foo’!” I’d die alone, but it’d be worth it.
This is why the post-landing press conference looked surprisingly civilised to me. The ESA people talked about how happy they were and how this was a first and that was it. That makes no sense. You pulled off a real-world approximation of Armageddon, so really, it’s okay for you to show off for a bit. It would have been understandable if the press con had gone like this:
Journalist: Your team just made history. How do you feel?
ESA Guy: Mine is bigger than yours. And yours and yours and yours. (looks at a picture of god) And yours.
Journalist: Right. Can you tell us about the pre-landing moments?
ESA Guy: Like, if I pulled it out right now, I could smack the comet with it.
Journalist: Ohkay. We heard that there was a problem with the thruster –
ESA Guy: Ain’t no problem with this thruster baybeh.
Journalist: I give up.
ESA Guy: (jumping up and down on the table) COMET KA KING KAUN? BHIKU MHATRE!
This landing is also another reminder of the pointlessness of religion. When science needs to unlock the mysteries of the universe, it sends a robot to dig into a piece of space rock 317 million miles away. Meanwhile, religion tells you that comets are god’s way of showing his anger at the fact that you had a beer or used a condom or touched someone you weren’t supposed to.
My parents’ generation got to see the moon landing, and I got to see this. But then they also got to see bell-bottoms, so I win. I’m pretty sure I’ll be telling my kids about this, probably two minutes after they’re born. And then I’ll pack them off to Rocket Science school.
(Note: This is my HT column dated 16th Nov 2014.)