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.
Travel 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.