Did you know NASA accidentally erased the original moon landing footage during routine magnetic tape re-use in the 1980s? The footage the world saw on television that July day in 1969 was actually taken of a slow-scan television monitor and re-broadcast, picture quality reduced. The space between the primacy of that moment and the narrative of the 20th century is obscured by a layer of irretrievable analog decay, time, and distance.
Now death, too.
We lose heroes from the space age and the temptation is to eulogize an era, not a person. Neil Armstrong’s death does not signify the dwindling hopes of a different America. Today we have a completely new approach to space, from which we’ll learn a great deal. Maybe not from humans coming home and struggling their whole lives to convey the gravitas of their experiences in words, from astronauts whose dreams at night are forever colored by dusty panoramas and pea-sized Earths. Rather, from smart machines serving as our eyes and ears. Instead of famous footprints, we now leave tread marks.
NASA’s Curiosity Rover is wonderful, and has already proven a robot’s capacity to ignite the global imagination, but it cannot perform the simple acts of grace that can be the lasting effects of a mission to space. We should invent poetry engines, rovers equipped with algorithms that can turn vaporized soil samples into poignant insights.
For now, unmanned space exploration can tell us everything, but not how the dust feels under its boots, nor that giant loping strides and kangaroo jumps are the quickest way across the surface. It can’t, like Buzz Aldrin, privately take communion before stepping out onto lunar surface, or quote Psalms in its final broadcast before splashdown (“What is man that Thou art mindful of him?”). It has no thumb to blot out planet Earth, no heart to feel very small, and it can’t retire from the space program to live the rest of its life on a farm in Ohio, like Neil Armstrong, who was forever mindful of his position as only an incidental figurehead for an effort of thousands of people.
The current moment in space exploration is not defined by loss, however. Rather, it's a paradigm shift, one that will be seamlessly adopted by the generations born long, long after the ghostly black-and-white footage of men on the moon first beamed down to Earth. The science fiction writer William Gibson put it this way: 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-encompassing embrace.”
We can't cleave these machines from ourselves: they are our eyes and ears. They are us.
I can’t go to Mars and see what it looks like for myself. Nobody can–although perhaps the future Neil Armstrong of Mars lives among us today. I might not live to see that historic step into red dust. Instead, though, I have seen a robot, a laboratory, a sentry of extended sense organs for the human race, roll forward. I find it profoundly moving, not only because, with Curiosity, something technically inconceivable has been accomplished, but because we–that room full of high-fiving tinkerers, and us plebeians too–can look at Curiosity’s shadow and understand, without hesitation, that it’s our own.
-Claire L. Evans is a writer and artist working in Los Angeles. In addition to performing in the conceptual pop group YACHT, she works as a science journalist and pens a blog, Universe, which addresses the synchronies among art, science, technology, and the cultural world at large. Her work was recently anthologized in The Best Science Writing Online 2012, out now on Farrar, Straus And Giroux. Find her at www.clairelevans.com.