Last Monday morning, at 8.32 our time, a mobile laboratory named Curiosity landed on Mars, on a mission that is said to be critical for the future of further exploration in our neighborhood. Wherever we were at that time, we could look into the southeastern sky and imagine the eight-wheeled platform, the size of a small van, raising a puff of ceramic colored dust as it touched down. Curiosity traveled about 300 million kilometers on a journey that began on November 26, 2011.
Why is this mission so important? Because NASA, the US space agency, has suffered serious budget cuts and if it loses this bit of hardware worth 2.5 billion dollars (and a decade’s worth of work), it will be a while before it recovers and continues with such research. About half the previous Mars missions have failed: some at launch, others in the landing phase, while others were lost in space. Another reason for us to hope for the mission’s success is that it may reveal what happened on Mars 3.5 billion years ago, what geological changes led to the planet’s losing its atmosphere, and with it the oceans that, like ours, covered part of its surface.
Above all, though, humanity’s adventure in space serves the need to escape our daily orbit, to explore the Universe, to learn about the past and the future, to understand the present and change it. Aiming high forces us to surpass ourselves; knowledge leads to new understanding: leaping into the void of space opens up new opportunities for growth and so helps us stand more firmly on Earth. A few weeks ago, a great leap inwards (into spheres small and invisible) confirmed the existence of Higgs’ boson, the particle that bridges the chasm between energy and mass.
So where do we stand? As living beings, we are a tiny speck in Space, somewhere between the dark matter of mystery and the absolute light of the Sun; in Time, we share a moment in infinity — like flies, or gods, indifferent to the fate of planets. We are, each one of us, what we are: individuals in our own matrix of relatives, friends, colleagues, neighbors, fellow citizens, fellow Europeans; a momentary part of an ocean of humanity. In the past few years, we Greeks have also been insecure and dazed, having suffered repeated blows to our sense of self.
For three years, we stagger from one defeat to the next, our relations with others changed, our identity shaken, our expectations lost. We wait to see what our creditors demand, what new insult will come our way from yet another of our partners. Our hopes lie in whatever measures will be taken by those who run Europe, thinking that if they manage to save the euro maybe they will save us too. But we see precious time going to waste, difficulties accumulating to the point where it seems impossible that we — and others — will escape and find our way toward a dignified future.
However many structural problems and systemic weaknesses Greece may have, the past few years have shown that our greatest weakness is the lack of ideas and mental strength among our politicians and intellectuals. We did not have the imagination to see that we were headed for a collision with reality; then, when our ship was on the rocks, we could not work together, we could not look for our own solutions and initiatives — even when we saw that our EU partners and other significant officials were just as short of ideas. The suggestions, reversals and incomplete proposals of the European Central Bank President Mario Draghi are just the most recent evidence of this.
Stuck as we are, maybe we Greeks were not in a position to uncover the Universe’s secrets, nor could we imagine journeys through Space, but we could have done much more than quarrel with each other, stuck in our same, old, exhausted roles.
We have done nothing to set our own course, even as sullen salvage crews tow our ship to an unknown destination.