Earlier I wrote about the Japanese Hayabusa Space probe and the immensity of the mission. It seems this week it evidence shows the probe was unable to complete its final goal and did not retrieve any soil samples from the asteroid it landed on. The connotation of the New York Times article published on July 1 makes the mission out as an utter failure. Fortunately the Japanese official involved in the project did not share that pessimism.
Does the fact the probe may not have any sampled from the asteroid represent a complete mission failure? I would say no. Space travel is complicated. Travelling to other planets is difficult enough, but flying to an asteroid is even harder. Considering the number of complications and obstacles the Hayabusa mission had to overcome I would hardly characterize the mission as a failure. I don’t think success and failure is measured the same way when it come to space missions.
Space is unforgiving. It’s unlike any exploratory effort take on by man before. Unlike sailing the seas in search of trade routes and new lands trouble in space is merciless. There is no chance of rescue, no chance of being ship wrecked on a deserted island and the room for error is nearly zero.
Mission leader Junichiro Kawaguchi, was quoted saying “Yes, there were problems, but we learned how to overcome those — that’s the whole point.” He could not be more correct. Despite the decades of work in space we are still barely past the crawling stage when it comes to extra-orbital missions. Work in space needs amazing precision and the Hayabusa’s team’s ability to trouble shoot major problems from hundreds of thousands of kilometres away to safely navigate the craft to the asteroid and back is a phenomenal show of skill. That the canister returned empty is not as important as the fact it returned.
The Japanese show know signs of giving up on perfecting the technology and that is a good thing. Only a pessimist would see this mission as a failure. Sure it hit some bumps, but think of what would have happened a thousand years ago if the we would have stopped exploring because a few ships were lost at sea.
But our major obstacle in our space exploration efforts isn’t snags in the technology it’s mindsets such as this one: “Japan, the third country after the United States and the former Soviet Union to put a satellite into orbit, in 1977, has since launched a string of successful rockets and has been intent on being a space power. But its aspirations have more recently been usurped by China, which put a man in space — a feat Japan has not yet managed on its own.”
We must stop looking at space from a national perspective. There are no borders outside our atmosphere. When we stop racing to see who can do what first and start pooling our resources we will begin to see the advances that will make space exploration viable.