Europe’s Next Mission: Capitalizing on Stunning Success of Philae

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PARIS — Landing the Philae probe on the surface of a comet 500 million kilometers from Earth after a 10-year voyage that included 30 months of satellite hibernation is a made-in-Europe masterstroke — all the more striking given how few thought it would work.

Success has a thousand fathers, but failure is an orphan — an aphorism that might explain the absence of many high-ranking political officials at the various landing events. The odds, after all, were that Philae would fail. Political calculus would argue against taking the risk of associating too closely with it.

French President Francois Hollande was a notable exception, attending an event in Paris with the French space minister and the head of the French space agency, CNES, despite the fact that Philae and its Rosetta comet-chaser satellite are not French-dominated missions.

Germany led the Philae lander team. German Chancellor Angela Merkel — trained as a research physicist, with a doctorate in quantum chemistry and unafraid of technical details — and Germany’s space minister, Brigitte Zypries, both had higher priorities that day than to show up at the events in Cologne and Darmstadt, Germany, the latter being the home of the European Space Agency’s European Space Operations Centre (ESOC), ground zero for the landing event.

Zypries was in Cologne on Nov. 13 — not for Philae and Rosetta, but to welcome home ESA astronaut Alexander Gerst, a German, at a press conference after his tour at the international space station — a risk-free event.

Philae’s success on Comet 67P is now a world event; even British Prime Minister David Cameron tweeted congratulations.

The challenge for Europe’s space sector, and especially for the 20-nation ESA, is how to translate the momentum generated by the success into the kind of political capital that funds budgets and seeds the ground for future Philaes.

ESA Director-General Jean-Jacques Dordain, who is retiring in 2015, could not have dreamed of better exit music for himself, or better timing for the agency.

Philae landed Nov. 12, with confirmation Nov. 13 that after two hold-onto-your-hat rebounds off the comet’s surface and a resting place nowhere near where anyone wanted, its sensors and communications capabilities were intact and working.

That evening, the space ministers of France, Germany, Italy and several other nations held a long-planned meeting in Cologne in the hunt for agreement on a multiyear spending program on next-generation rockets, the international space station and a Mars rover mission already under contract.

ESA’s 20 governments are scheduled to meet Dec. 2 in Luxembourg to decide on funding these programs. Will Philae’s afterglow have any effect? Early indications are that it might.

Relations between ESA and its international partners — led by NASA and the space agencies of Russia, China, Japan and India — might be in for a reset in light of Philae and Rosetta as well.

Long chafing in its role as forever the helpmate Tonto to NASA’s Lone Ranger, ESA has grown accustomed to depending on the kindness of friends to get where it wants to go despite racking up a series of major space science accomplishments — the Planck satellite’s all-sky map of the universe being one of the most recent.

The parachute landing of ESA’s Huygens probe on Saturn’s moon, Titan, in January 2005 was nearly as spectacular as Philae, but occurred at a time when social media’s global chat room was still to come. And Huygens rode to the Saturn system aboard NASA’s Cassini.

But Rosetta, whose acrobatic flying display around Comet 67P since August to study the nucleus and prepare for Philae is harder to publicize than the plucky lander but every bit as impressive — is an ESOC-managed affair, a bona fide European undertaking.

European scientists still speak of making a “pilgrimage” to NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, where so much space exploration history has been written. The successes — and of course NASA’s huge budgetary advantage over ESA — hang in the air every time the two partners sit down to discuss future cooperation: These are the people who did Apollo, Voyager, Hubble and Curiosity.

In 2009 NASA and ESA agreed to join forces on a two-launch mission to Mars, called ExoMars, which featured a jointly built rover vehicle. In February 2012 NASA canceled most of its ExoMars participation, citing budget pressure. Less than a year later, NASA announced its own Mars 2020 mission to follow the Curiosity rover, whose landing on Mars in August 2012 similarly captured the world’s attention.

One can only speculate about whether the U.S. government and NASA might make a different decision now in a discussion about collaborating with Europe, and whether the correlation of forces has not shifted a bit. Surely more than one on the U.S. side will be thinking: These are the people who flew Rosetta, who landed Philae.