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The meaning of Rosetta's historic comet landing

This image released by the European Space Agency

This image released by the European Space Agency on Wednesday, Nov. 12, 2014, shows an artist rendering of the comet lander Philae separating from Rosetta, the mother spaceship, and descending to the surface of the comet known as 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko. Credit: AP

Many scientists believe the origins of life on Earth lie in comets that smashed into the planet, bringing with them the basic building blocks of life. So humankind may have, indirectly, come from comets.

And now we've landed on one.

Wednesday morning, Philae, the lander that's been traveling in space on the Rosetta spacecraft for 2004, landed on a comet known as 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko. The operation, the feat of trying to land a moving rover on a comet zooming through space at 41,000 mph as it orbits the sun, boggles the mind. It is, even without narration from a heroic astronaut, yet another giant step for mankind.

And not just technologically.

The roots of the space race lie both in the competitive development of ever-better missiles between Germany and the United States during World War II, and then the Cold War battle between the USSR and the United States. When President John F. Kennedy announced in May 1961 the goal of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely by the end of the decade, it was largely in response to the belief that the Soviets were winning the space race.

But today, the breakthroughs we're seeing in space exploration are generally collaborative. The Rosetta project is the European Space Agency's baby, and the agency is itself a cooperative of 20 nations that haven't always been known for cooperation. Beyond that, comet exploration in general, and the Rosetta in particular, have become worldwide missions of scientific cooperation: NASA and the Russian and Japanese space agencies have all played a part.

The thought of space technology as top-secret weaponry has provided the basis for a lot of science fiction and a lot of unease. Ideally, though, technological advances and breakthroughs should blaze a path toward plenty, and thus peace.

The fact that humans accomplished the feat of such a landing makes our hearts soar. The potential for knowledge that could come from it makes our minds reel. But it's the fact that nations did it cooperatively rather than competitively that makes our souls sing.

Lane Filler is a member of Newsday's editorial board. 

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