The Rosetta Mission: Empowering and Inspiring Youth Beyond Borders

(Top) The Empower 2016 meeting in Qatar Foundation in Doha, Qatar. (Bottom) Public lecture in the Bibliotheca Alexandrina in  Egypt in 2014.

By: Essam Heggy, University of Southern California, NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory, US CONSERT CO-I

Since my PhD graduation in 2002 from Paris University (UPMC), I have the utmost pleasure and opportunity to continuously be a team member in an important number of planetary science missions exploring several bodies in the solar system. Space missions and their associated discoveries have always sparked the curiosity of the general public and triggered their interest in attending lectures and special events in the scientific institutions in the countries partnering in these experiments.

As a scientist part of my role and duty is to contribute towards spreading general awareness and helping the public understand the importance of such discoveries. But my experience on this matter with Rosetta was truly a unique one. Rosetta was different in every way; with its twenty instruments (ten on the orbiter and ten on the lander), it has roughly double to triple the number of science experiments on most missions. The milestones in Rosetta also make it one of the most intriguing missions, from the Lutetia flybys to the comet approach; the Philae landing to the endless search for the lander and the exciting Philae wake-up; all the way to the retrieval of the lost lander and the final spacecraft controlled descent. All of this makes Rosetta one of the most complex missions in space science history since the Apollo era.

The Rosetta mission’s uniqueness managed to attract a significant number of young followers outside the European Union and the United States—in particular from emergent countries in both Africa and Asia. Being a native Egyptian, I was personally surprised by the number of invitations I received to talk about Rosetta from various institutions with little to no heritage in space missions. This was certainly a trend that I did not witness before for any other mission.

In my homeland Egypt, for instance, the historic Bibliotheca Alexandrina—once the site of the largest library in the world in the historic coastal city of Alexandria—organized an invited lecture in the fall of 2014 where a crowd exceeding 500 students gathered to hear about Rosetta. The attendees were not the usual crowd of astronomy enthusiasts that attended my previous talks. They were mostly new ones for which Rosetta was their first time to hear about space exploration. Some of them came even from the two Egyptian cities after which the mission was named; “Rosetta” located to in the North of Egypt close to Alexandria and the island of “Philae” in southern Egypt near the historic city of Aswan. A group of them raised a banner saying “We are from Rosetta.” I believe that Egyptians were not only interested in the mission because it carried familiar names, but also because Rosetta shared with them the long-lasting Egyptian curiosity to explore life’s origins—something that has been deeply engraved in Egyptians culture for thousands of years. The Philae landing took place after my lecture and I was truly pleased by the vast number of Egyptians discussing the landing on social media and following the updates of mission and the status of the Philae lander. Rosetta was certainly known by the youth in Egypt and followed closely by millions across the nation.

In Qatar, the EMPOWER Meeting held in Doha in the spring of 2016 and organized by Reach Out to Asia (ROTA), part of the Qatar Foundation, gathered several regional leaders to give powerful motivating speeches to the international delegation of youth attendees from all across Asia and North Africa. I was invited to talk about Rosetta and my talk was scheduled on the second day in the afternoon session that usually has a lower attendance rate. I entered an empty, large hall 15 minutes ahead of my talk to prepare my slides and ensure I was ready for my audience. I was truly amazed at how the room flooded with attendees beyond capacity within a few minutes. The local students and international youth had joined the session along with the international official delegations who all came because they were intrigued and curious about Rosetta’s discoveries.  Security had to make room for the officials and dignitaries who could not make their way through the crowds of youth.  Throughout the 45 minutes of the presentation, I could see the students’ focused eyes from the podium as they eagerly followed the slides and mission updates. After another 30 minutes of dense questions and interactions, the talk ended with a group picture with the Rosetta mission slide in the background. It was clear that Rosetta—with its unique mission science objectives, engineering complexities, landing uncertainties and genuine international collaboration—was an empowering story of science and mankind that was closer to the hearts of the youth than I or the organizers of the event could have ever imagined.

Along with the other co-investigators on Rosetta, I had the tremendous pleasure to explore one of the most remote and unknown frontiers of our solar system. But Rosetta has also given me the unique chance to discover that the human thirst for science, innovation and exploration of life’s origins extends far beyond our own borders, and that it is deeply engraved in every human’s nature. It is my deep belief that the Rosetta mission ignited the scientific curiosity of youth across our planet far beyond the expectations of Western organizations, potentially building the next generation of space scientists beyond our borders in a way that no other mission has accomplished in recent history.