Preparing for disaster, celebrating success

Eva Emerson
Sandy Schaffer
It’s not every day that you hear science stories on sports radio. But the Rosetta mission, which involved the impressive feat of landing a robot on a swiftly moving comet, provided an exception. Steve Czaban of ESPN Radio took a break from his usual obsessive football and basketball chatter, if only briefly, to voice his admiration for Rosetta and its slo-mo, balletic conveyance of the Philae lander onto 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko. In terms of public appreciation of science, the nod was gratifying. But it also reminded me why Science News is needed.

Czaban lauded the prowess and chutzpah of the engineers behind Rosetta, but he didn’t say why the mission exists or what key scientific questions it hopes to answer. That deeper view, often missing from mainstream media reports about science, is what Science News offers every issue, on as many aspects of science as we are able — from the headline grabbers like Rosetta to the more arcane but still fascinating search for the genetic roots of tameness in felines.

Philae’s landing didn’t work out quite as planned. But it was by no means a disaster. By any reasonable measure, the Rosetta mission is already a triumph; it successfully acquired data from the surface of a comet, a heroic accomplishment requiring years of preparation and planning by the mission’s scientists and engineers.

Preparing and planning for what might go wrong not only are key to success in risky space missions, but also are important for mitigating real disasters back here on Earth.

Three very different looks at disasters make up this special issue. Meghan Rosen reports on Page 16 about efforts to build a robotic first responder — a machine able to venture into rubble-strewn or radioactive sites to save lives or minimize damage. Laura Beil examines current understandings of how catastrophes affect children and who is most vulnerable. And Thomas Sumner describes the difficult job of studying an active volcano so a war-weary city can prepare for its hazards. Science cannot prevent all disasters or solve all the problems they spawn, of course, but it can point to the best ways to prepare, making disasters less damaging than they might otherwise be.

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