We live in a truly stunning time and place. The lovely vistas in the finest of science fiction movies could never produce the simple awe I feel when I look at NASA’s image of sunset on Mars:


We did this. Next time someone tells you that the government can’t do anything right, point them to this.

I also think that images like this are a partial answer to the occasional gripe you hear that money spent on the space program would have been better spent fighting disease or poverty. First, it’s naive to think that this is a zero-sum enterprise. We’re running a budget deficit year after year because we spend according to priorities, not according to the amount we can raise through taxes. If Congress wanted to spend more on social programs, they would. Second, there’s a strong case to be made for nourishing the soul. Images like this speak to limitless human potential, and to our fundamental unity as a nation, as a species and as a planet. That’s worth something ? quite a bit, in fact. Third, exploration matters. This gets to issues of soul nourishment, but is a separate matter. Pushing against frontiers is what makes us tick.

i-0b03dc829be9f298627275616c2872c4-200806131152.jpgTravel to Mars also gives us a different perspective on ourselves. This image of Earth and the Moon was, as NASA explains, “acquired on October 3, 2007, by the HiRISE camera on NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter.”

Looking back at Earth from a Martian orbit reverses how we normally think about our planet. Rather than Earth being our only base of observations, we can start observing it the way we have always done with other planets. This change is only slightly less momentous than our growing ability to explore Mars the way we are used to exploring Earth.


  1. #1 themadlolscientist
    June 13, 2008

    Awesome. Simply freeking awesome.

  2. #2 Christopher Gwyn
    June 14, 2008

    Putting a satellite at Mars whose purpose is to study Earth could be interesting. Comparing those distance observations, and their interpretations, with what Earth is really like could be interesting.

  3. #3 Zeno
    June 14, 2008

    First, it’s naive to think that this is a zero-sum enterprise.

    Damn right! Where are these penny-pinching misers when it comes to military procurement budgets? When you consider that all of NASA’s operations could be covered (and then some!) by the money that is lost and unaccounted for in Iraq, it become painfully clear what petty quibbling it is to carp about the budget for space exploration. It’s money well spent.

  4. #4 wazza
    June 15, 2008

    Chris: We’ve done better than that. When the Galileo probe was heading to Jupiter, it swung past Earth for a gravity assist… and they used it to have a look at Earth as though it was an alien planet. Carl Sagan discusses it in Pale Blue Dot, which is still one of my favourite science books.

  5. #5 Geoffrey Alexander
    June 18, 2008

    @wazza: it was Sagan himself who urged, and was responsible for, that swing of the camera back at us. He is missed…

    Josh: before I forget, thanks for bringing this image to our attention. I try to keep up with NASA imaging but I’d missed this one. My reaction was the same as yours; but in the last few days it’s captured me even more, to the extent I’m having it blown up for my office wall to share and indulge in. What a cold star it seems from that height — I’ve looked at the sunrise differently ever since…

    Thanks again.