November 16, 2014


Friday evening, at 22.30, I wanted to go to bed. I failed. I couldn’t let go off what was happening to a small  box named Philae, standing somewhat clumsily on a comet far away, trying to do science with a battery that was steadily coming closer to giving in to the inevitable: shutting down. Staring at Twitter, I was clearly not the only one who couldn’t get himself to go to bed: thousands of people were following the faith of the small comet lander in real time. Right up to the moment the machine gave in and went into hibernation due to lack of power, at around 01.45 in the morning and only after delivering all its science data to its orbiter Rosetta high above. It might be the last we ever hear from Philae, and I witnessed it live and from the front row. Quite different from Wednesday, when I was ‘VIP’  at one of the official events, when it first touched down. That might sound more thrilling, but in the era of social media: no it isn’t.

I was in Space Expo, Noordwijk, last Wednesday. I hesitated to go, as these space events are now mostly a thing from the past. But Rosetta is different: I know that box, Philae, from very close-by. In my previous job, I have been within touching distance a few times, when Rosetta was tested in the Clean Rooms of ESTEC.  In 2004, I spend three long nights in Space Expo, before it was finally launched to begin its long journey. So I went to see the landing, but I have to admit I mostly spend my time chatting with old friends. The landing event itself was fairly classic ‘old-style’ communications: a successful landing was announced, followed by at least nine very boring speeches of ‘important people’, not selected for their ability to thrill an audience, sadly.

Something is wrong
Worse: for the more experienced viewer, it was quickly clear that something was not right. There were too many puzzled looks in the background, not joining the cheering happiness. That’s when ESA started to investigate.  And that’s no fun for an audience at an event, far away from the stories. Indoors, there must have been fears and hopes. At the event, there was drinks and waiting: two hours with hardly any information, except for the knowledge that this in itself is never good news. Ofcourse, landing a comet is an outstanding achievement. Nevertheless, at that event, to be honest, I would describe my state of mind as ‘mildly interested’.

But this Friday evening, when the mission team raced the clock to squeeze the precious science data out the lander, 500 million kilometres away on a distant comet, I sat on my couch with a good bottle of wine, opened twitter and really connected. I refused to go to bed.

Last Friday night was so very different. With all the big bosses gone again, the floor in ESOC (Germany) was just for the scientists and mission controllers, some communications officers and a few journalists that had decided to hang around  (especially tweeps Emily Lakdawalla  and Chris Lintott). Together they allowed us to follow events in real time. We shared their enormous relief when contact was reestablished around 22.40h: the lander was still alive. We saw the science coming in and witnessed the risky manoeuvre to reorient the craft. We shared hopes, fears, successes and failures with the scientist and mission controllers. And we witnessed the little machine finally give in to its inevitable fate and shut down, but not after delivering it’s very last drop of science just in time. We, the thousands of people staying up late, were looking directly over their shoulders. We were truly part of an adventure.

philae_twitter‘Just a box’
It’s amazing how one can connect to a box, when communications is done properly. Yes, it is a marvellous bit of engineering and it is far out in our solar system, but still: it’s a box the size of a small fridge made of metal, nuts and bolts. And of course, I know that behind the twitter accounts of Philae and Rosetta are people (I can probably even guess who), but the social media team had its act really together: it just worked like a charm.  For the thousands of people following its faith over the shoulders of the mission controllers, it was a brave little machine fighting to its last little voltage to deliver us science.

On Wednesday, I was an interested bystander in a successful, but very classic PR event. That was ok. On Friday, on twitter, I really felt part of a story. And I connected to the many friends, colleagues and strangers sharing the adventure in the middle of the night. We loved it.

Thanks for that lesson, ESA.



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5 Responses

  1. Beste Michel,

    Thanks for your very good blog and personal analysis of a week that made history. Your observations are describing well what has been happening.
    The ESA facebook page reached more than 200.000 likes, and growing…
    See you soon.

  2. Loek Jansen says:

    Ik heb met genoegen je stukje zitten lezen. Ook ik ben op de eerste plaats onder de indruk van het Huzarenstuk van de ESA om Philae op 67P te plaatsen. En we hebben allemaal het kortstondige leven van het metalen kereltje Philae kunnen bijwonen. Ik ben diep onder de indruk van het geheel. Mocht je tussen nu en verderop nog iets horen van de uitkomst van het wetenschappelijke ondezoek van de komeet, hou ik me graag aanbevolen om daarvan iets te vernemen. Vr. Groeten Loek Jansen

  3. Eelco Doornbos says:

    I also followed the twitter stream (quietly) on friday night, and greatly enjoyed the comments of those sharing the final heroic efforts of Philae to send back science data.

    The live stream on wednesday, at least around the time of the landing, was a big letdown. After seeing the first excitement and quick confusion on the faces of the people in mission control, I really wanted to keep watching and be kept up to date about the data that was coming in, and what it meant, even though much was unclear at that time. Instead, we got all those boring congratulatory speeches and just two 1-minute updates from mission control the entire rest of the evening. What was the point? To please the politicians and ESA high level managers?

    The events of last week represented a huge, perhaps once-in-a-generation opportunity to get the general public, and especially kids, excited about the actual inner workings of science and technology at this advanced level. However, it seems the part of ESA PR responsible for the live stream of the landing made their decisions thinking that their target audience consisted solely of policy makers.

  4. Ed Johnson says:

    As an engineer, I echo your frustration about timely release of information on the landing, especially as to why both harpoons and the push-down thruster didn’t work. This type of knowledge is important for any future designs, if it’s a mystery to those involved, then that will be even more important.

    Ed Johnson

  1. November 17, 2014

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