The NASA Mars rover Curiosity just landed on Mars. Those of us who tuned in vicariously via NASA’s live coverage watched as a roomful of tense engineers exploded, and heard their disembodied voices whispering and booming through the control room. Holy shit. We did it. Their headsets fell askew, they glad-handed one another, criss-crossing the room, and then, immobilized by a sudden hush as the news spread: We’ve got thumbnails.
Thumbnails. We watched as a tiny image formed, transmuted across the void of space and into this room. It was black and white, an indistinguishable gesture of light in a blur of dark pixels. The engineers cheered and held one another as they gazed upon this small, inauspicious sight. One man sobbed at his desk. Then another image came down the line, this time more resolved. We began to see the grain of the dust, the pebbles, the outline of the rover itself, 352 million miles and 14 minutes of delay away, struck against the Martian soil.
And so, as with so many missions before it, the narrative of our rover’s discovery began with an acknowledgement of its own shadow.
NASA’s older Martian rovers, Spirit and Opportunity, were both avid amateur photographers of their own shadows as well. In fact, such images have been part and parcel of the visual language of space history since the Soviet Union developed and launched the Venera probes in the early 1960s; which, beginning with Venera 9, were the first landers to send back images of another planet. Those pictures too, taken before the cameras were undone by the very atmosphere they hoped to document, were of light and shadows cast on rocks.
Rocks that looked for all the world like our rocks, light like our light, and shadows like our shadows, only cast on an alien world.
William Gibson writes that the moment we began sensing and recording with technology, our extended communal nervous system, the “absolute limits of the experiential world” were “in a very real and literal way…profoundly and amazingly altered, extended, changed.” We no longer relied on the limited capacities of our individual memories, nor did we quite fully trust the bounded senses of our apparatus; free to back ourselves up and reach ourselves further outward, we extended our reach. We also loosened the definition of “we,” allowing our tools to become part of us in subtle ways. Now, closer and closer to the machine, we share a “largely invisible, all-ecompassing embrace.”
This means: we can’t go to Mars and see what it looks like for ourselves. Not yet, anyway. So instead we have sent this robot, this laboratory, this sentry of extended sense organs for the human race, ahead of us. I find it profoundly moving, not only because something inconceivable has been accomplished, but because we–that room full high-fiving tinkerers, and us plebeians too–can look at Curiosity’s shadow and understand, without hesitation, that it’s our own.