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A Vision of Earth

A few days ago, many millions of miles away, as the Sun dropped towards the rugged rim of an ancient, huge crater on an alien planet with volcanoes and canyons which dwarf the largest on Earth, a nuclear powered robot rolled to a halt after a day of driving. As its dented and torn wheels locked in place for the night, a fine rain of cinnamon-hued dust hissing from them, it lifted its unblinking electronic eyes to the darkening sky and stared into the sunset. As the Sun vanished behind the distant mountains, snuffed out like a candle flame, all traces of the daytime sky’s subtle pink and lemon shades fled, replaced by an icy, almost metallic blue, and as the temperature plunged, and the shadow of the enormous layered mountain off to the rover’s side began to crawl across the rock- and boulder-strewn crater floor, Curiosity scanned the dusk…

A few hand widths above the far horizon, glinting like sequins against the darkening sky, a pair of stars – one blue and bright, one silver and fainter – huddled close together against the brutal cold, and stared back at the rover in silence…

With a barely audible click and whirr, Curiosity’s camera recorded the scene, again, and again, and again. Moments later it fell silent, just as night fell like a black cloak thrown over the floor of Gale Crater, and the two stars sank slowly towards, and then dropped out of sight behind, the crater’s rim.

Soon after, those photos were heading back to Earth, where Mars scientists and enthusiasts alike were waiting impatiently for their arrival, having hoped, and dreamed, about them for months, in some cases years. When they finally appeared on their screens, displayed freely on web pages for all to see, the images were full of stars, as if spattered by paint from an artist’s brush, or snow from a dog’s wagging tail, but the scientists and enthusiasts knew all but two of those “stars” were imposters, just electronic noise recorded by the camera as it photographed its intended subjects…

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Around the world the image enthusiasts attacked the speckly twilight images with relish, getting to work on them with their image processing software, stitching the different images together, removing the static, and teasing detail, structure and form out of the murk. One of them, Damia Bouic, created something… wonderful, something beautiful, which she then posted online for everyone to see. This is her image…

Sol529_Mastcam34 Damia

If you peer closely and carefully at that image you might just be able to see a lone speck of light in the sky above that rugged horizon… click on the image and you’ll bring up a much larger version, and the speck will stand out much more clearly. But what is it?

That speck of light, that little blue dot, that unremarkable-looking star”  is us. That’s Earth, shining in the sunset sky on Mars as the Red Planet’s Evening Star…

Sol529_Mastcam34 crop

And that’s what Curiosity was photographing from the floor of Gale Crater – she was taking a portrait of Earth. From Mars.

Even more careful and clever processing of the image sent back by Curiosity reveals not just one but two stars, almost impossibly close together: Earth and the Moon, shining in Barsoom’s dusk sky. Quite incredible.

Since then, of course, Damia’s image – and other versions of the same scene, rendered by other image enthusiasts – has spread around the world, and has been seen by millions. NASA put out their own version, too. And Curiosity’s portrait of Earth is already being hailed, just days after being taken, as an iconic image.

Although they were a novelty just a decade or so ago, images of the Earth from space are taken quite regularly now. Essentially, every probe sent Out There which can take a picture of Earth from wherever it is, does. It’s great PR for NASA, or ESA, or whichever agency is responsible for the hardware, because even after all these years there’s something very special about images showing the Earth from space. They speak to us, call out to us, reach into us and pluck at our jaded, cynical heartstrings and make us shiver with excitement and, yes, pride. This one by Curiosity is no different, apart from the way that it’s clearer than others, perhaps. It shows Earth as a bright star in the sky of Mars, and, like all the other Earth portraits it’s an incredible technical achievement, absolutely incredible, the result of years of careful planning, designing, and building by skilled engineers and technicians, and in the years to come everyone who sees it – in a magazine, on the pages of a newspaper, on a website or in a beautiful coffee table book – will be moved by its beauty, I’m sure.

And yet…

It might sound ungrateful, churlish even, but I have to be honest. Looking at that picture, as beautiful as it is, I can’t help feeling some frustration and disappointment too. Why?

Because I can’t help thinking Damnit… that should have been taken by a person, not a robot…

Now, I’m a HUGE rover fan, as many of you will know, and I will defend them, and their incredible teams, against any and all criticism. But it’s 2014, for pity’s sake. We should have people on Mars TOO by now. And that portrait of Earth should have been taken by a wide-eyed, moved almost to tears astronaut, with a camera held in their shaking gloved hands, not by another machine.

Now before anyone says anything I know full well, thank you very much, the reasons why we’re not on Mars – people, I mean. We haven’t got the technology yet. We don’t know enough abut surviving long space trips yet. We can’t land something on Mars big enough to carry people yet. All true, but that doesn’t make it right. Because, let’s face it, basically the lack of bootprints on Mars comes down to two things – money and lack of political will. Not a lack of money, though, oh no. The money is there, it’s just being spent on the wrong things – stupid, worthless things, like weapons, and wars, and killing people, you know, the usual. As for the political will thing, well, it’s the same old problem. No-one is willing to commit to an epic, long term project like manned exploration of Mars when they won’t be the one getting the credit when it reaches conclusion. And today’s reactionary, vision-free politicians, who live in a world where Creationism is taught in schools, people who believe the Apollo landings were faked and scientists are not to be trusted – don’t see votes in big science, so they don’t support it. Even Obama, who I believe to be a man of great intelligence, strong principles and towering intellect, cannot hear the siren call of Mars. And if someone like him can’t, well, no-one else is going to, not for a long, long time.

Of course, despite the pressures of global recession and the determined efforts of politicians to throw it into a sack and hurl it into a fast flowing river like a once-cute dog or cat that has grown too expensive to keep, unmanned space exploration is still going strong, and the solar system is now littered with incredibly sophisticated camera- and instrument-covered spacecraft, exploring its many planets, moons, asteroids and comets. But as amazing as these missions are – and they are – true exploration comes when People Go Somewhere New and See New Things. Having found something unusual, reached somewhere new, discovered something incredible, humans can share their experiences and feelings in a way no machine can, connect with other people in a way no robot, however cute, can ever possibly hope to. The reaction to Cmdr Chris Hadfield’s ISS videos and reworking of “Space Oddity” prove that.

A place doesn’t truly exist in the minds of people unless one of their own has been there, seen it, and talked about it, or at least shared photographs of it. That’s why people still risk life and limb to climb Everest instead of just looking at photos of it, and why people dive down to explore the ocean floor. We seek to *personally* know the unknown, and are driven to see new places.

And human eyes haven’t been anywhere or seen anything new since the last Apollo mission to the Moon.

A naive over-simplification of the true picture? Perhaps. But damnit it’s 2014. There should be footprints on Mars by now. Not just wheel-tracks.

If we do live in a Multiverse, as many scientists believe, the story behind Damia’s image is a rather different one. Somewhere, out there, is an Earth which didn’t reach the Moon and then stop – but an Earth, and a human race, which kept going. Out there, in that universe, this latest portrait of Earth was taken by an astronaut, standing on Mars, someone who had grown up with that dream and had achieved it. It was taken by a living, breathing human being, someone who had walked to that place on purpose, pacing backwards and forwards a few times until they’d found the perfect spot for their photo. Then, as the Sun set, they looked around them, seeing the shadows being cast by the thousands of rocks and boulders all around them and seeing the last slanting rays of sunlight illuminating the summit of Mt Sharp with Alpenglow for a few brief seconds before the Sun vanished behind the hills, plunging the whole world into darkness. Then that man or woman gazed into the twilight, through their dusty, grit-scratched visor, searching for the glint of Earth, smiling as they found it, then raised their camera to take their pictures.

Click. Click. Click. And click again.

How would they have felt as they did that, I wonder?

Having taken their pictures, what did they do next? Did they turn away from the sunset sky straight away and head back to their fledgeling research outpost or base, or their own spacecraft, or did they linger on, watching Earth and the Moon dropping slowly, so slowly towards the horizon, eventually kissing the tops of the crater’s mountainous rim and then disappearing altogether? Did they drink every last possible moment out of the experience before turning away from the dark and heading back to the light?

I know which I would have done…

And then later, back in the light, warmth and – relative – comfort – of their module, or spacecraft cabin, what? I like to imagine they shucked off their dusty, sweat-stained spacesuit and dived in the shower, washing the grit of Mars off their skin and out of their hair before grabbing a well-deserved bite to eat. Then, when they finally felt human again, they settled down at their computer and started to work on their images, pulling up their favourite image processing software to turn their sequence of noisy frames into a single sweeping panoramic image with just one bright “star” shining above the dark horizon. By then it would have been late, very late, and yawning wearily and all too aware if the demands of the next sol they quickly uploaded their image onto their website and then collapsed into bed, pleased with their efforts and hoping a few other people would appreciate them too…

Next morning, after showering and dressing, before heading out to work, they quickly checked their website stats and were delighted, if amazed, to see their image had been viewed several thousand times while they slept. For the rest of the day they had no chance to check the stats again because they were busy out in the martian outback, gathering rock specimens or repairing some failed piece of equipment, but when they got home their image’s view count was in the high hundreds of thousands, and the next morning had broken a million…

…because people back home, on their Earth, on that blue star he or she had photographed, had fallen in love with it, because seeing it allowed them to imagine they were on Mars too…

Curiosity’s portrait of Earth is beautiful, magical, moving, all those things and more, and I am not criticising it, or downplaying its significance or technical achievement, for a moment. But imagine how much more beautiful, magical and moving that image of Earth would be if it had been taken by a person.

It’s time one was.

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2 Responses

  1. Much as we would probably like to, we can’t escape the realities of the society we live in. Seemingly, there now has to be a good economic case for “grand projects”; flood defense or manned missions to Mars.
    The space race that put people into space and men on the moon was, perhaps, a product of the battle between capitalism and communism and we now know who won that battle. It is such a shame that the winners of that battle did not have the vision to take the most glorious of those victories and project what benefit their continuance and development could have for the human species.
    Without wonderment and ambition our species will not go forward as our ancestors have done. We can’t just draw the line and content ourselves with battling poverty, disease and inequality no matter how noble these aims are. We must do both. Explore the frontiers of our knowledge and technical expertise as well as bettering the environment for all who share it. By not doing both, we not only betray our heritage from the pioneers who went before us but we will almost certainly cease to be human.
    To be human is to explore. It’s in our nature and we should embrace our nature no matter what the cost.
    The first person to set foot upon the surface of Mars will follow in the footsteps of many who made the ultimate sacrifice so that they could get there. The one sacrifice that no one seems willing to make at the moment though is to spend the money necessary to achieve this goal. And, surely, that is the smallest possible sacrifice that anyone could make to achieve such a glorious outcome.It’s only money after all.

  2. I am not a scientist and don’t claim to be. But I am aware of the power of vision. Let’s continue believing in human spirit. let’s continue believing we can do it and support those that are doing it. Let SpaceX, Amazon, ESA, the reds, anyone who has the gut to step out, let them go forth. The more people get excited for this mission, the more possible it becomes. I vote for it.

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