Yesterday marked the return of NASA's stardust probe. The probe traveled nearly three billion miles over the course of seven years to collect dust particles from a comet and returned the heavenly material back home for analysis.
It is quite a miraculous feat indeed. By some accounts the collected dust could be as old as 4.5 billion years old. I read the news with a mixture of excitement and ambivalence. The geek part of me gets excited every time a space mission is successful. I become hopeful that some of our vexing questions about the universe we live in can be answered by these missions.
The cynical side of me, however, questions the validity and usefulness of some the claims. Okay, the dust might be 4.5 billion years old, but you could dig up some dirt from your own backyard and it will probably have the same age as the comet dust, if not older.
I suppose one might argue that comet dust is unadulterated material traveling through space for billions of years and it's not contaminated with biological matters. But then one might be able to dig a real deep hole in the ground and find some pristine dirt samples there. Volcano ashes and lava might also be considered pure as they are believed to be spewed from deep inside the Earth.
None of this suggests that I am against space missions. On the contrary, I believe such endeavors are worthy causes, if only to satisfy our curiosity about the universe. I am also certain that the technical knowledge gained from these missions are invaluable to the world of science and engineering. The people running these projects are no doubt much smarter than I can ever be. But I think it's fine to question everything, even if the questions seem silly.