Make space for laughter

If you're looking for a source of levity in austere times, space missions are a good bet. There was the time Nasa lost a $125m spacecraft because its scientists were working in metric units while the navigation software worked in feet and inches.

The British-led Beagle 2 mission seemed comical well before it disappeared without trace - the exact reasons still unknown - on Christmas Day 2003. And what about the Nasa mission that failed because someone had installed the spacecraft's acceleration sensors upside down? Comedy gold.

Most recently there was the Japanese Aerospace Exploration Agency's Hayabusa debacle. It was meant to fly to the asteroid Itokawa, land and collect asteroid dust for return to earth. En route, two out of the three navigation gyroscopes stopped working, it sprang a fuel leak and suffered engine malfunction. Hayabusa made it to the asteroid, but landed badly and, adding insult to injury, put itself into "safe mode", refusing to do or say anything.

It seemed that all was lost: but the Hayabusa scientists had the last laugh. Against all odds, they've managed to return it to earth intact. Researchers in Tokyo are now taking the probe apart to see what it brought back.

It's easy to look on space missions as a comedy of errors, but they are astonishing achievements. The Hayabusa engineers managed to land a space probe on an asteroid that is 290 million kilometres away and just 540 metres long. The dust samples that researchers hope it has returned are 4.6 billion years old. That means we are in possession of stuff that is one-third of the age of the universe. What's more, the samples could safeguard humanity: what they tell us about the composition of asteroids might prove vital in deflecting an asteroid on a collision course with earth.

All this for only $100m? Space missions provide great value for money. The scientific knowledge we gain often can't be learned any other way. The experience we garner, in terms of engineering, is invaluable. That's why Barack Obama's most recent challenge to Nasa - land an astronaut on an asteroid by 2025 - seems worth taking up. Critics have come up with all kinds of excuses for ignoring the challenge, largely because it is insanely difficult and potentially dangerous for the astronauts. But it's worth it. Space missions stretch us like no other sphere of human activity, and stretched minds are the greatest asset humanity has.

It is hackneyed to think the value of the space age lies only in spin-off developments - the old Teflon, Velcro and freeze-dried ice cream argument. It is far more far-reaching than that. Plus, it's good for a laugh.

Michael Brooks holds a PhD in quantum physics. He writes a weekly science column for the New Statesman, and his most recent book is At the Edge of Uncertainty: 11 Discoveries Taking Science by Surprise.