One of the main reasons I was so happy to calculate my mileage on planet Earth the other day, was it put things into perspective: while we're all busy kicking the shit out of each other (rhetorically and otherwise) in our little homes in our little cities in our little nations, our big planet is moving through our giant solar system and the vastness of space so fast, it can cover several billion miles before my life is even half over.
I've also been thinking, since I posted that, how easy it is to completely lose perspective about our relative impact on the Universe and our place in it.
When you ask people why they like Star Trek, one of the top answers is always some variation of "it gives us hope for the future." I always thought that sentiment was a little simplistic, but over the last couple of years, I've come to agree with it, and even embrace it. This morning, I realized that I can personally apply it to science fiction, back yard astronomy, and real-life space exploration as well.
I love Star Trek and science fiction because it allows me to take my focus off of all the problems we've created here in real life, and instead step into a world where we think of ourselves as "humans" instead of "Americans" or "British" or "Democrats" or "Republicans." I like -- wait, I need -- to spend some time in a world where people travel from one solar system to another, deal with alien species, and are enlightened enough through understanding how tiny we really are to quit the goddamn fighting among ourselves.
I love backyard astronomy because all I need is a blanket and a star chart to look out and see things that my ancestors saw hundreds of years ago; things that humbled and excited and mystified and inspired them. When I can get my hands on a telescope (oh, how I desperately want a 14 inch compound telescope!) and look at distant galaxies, where there may just be someone looking back at me, I feel the same emotions that my ancestors must have felt.
I love space exploration because it takes energy that could be spent destroying the planet or hurting people, and uses it to expand what we understand and what we can see in our lifetimes. As fun as it is to read and watch science fiction, it's infinitely more exciting and inspiring to watch rockets blast off on missions to other planets, and look at what they find when they get there.
This morning, I saw this picture of a sunset on Mars, and all these thoughts raced through my mind in a flash that took hours to process and comprehend. NASA's description is both informative and poetic:
On May 19th, 2005, NASA’s Mars Exploration Rover Spirit captured this stunning view of the Sun sinking below the rim of Gusev crater on Mars. This Panoramic Camera (Pancam) mosaic was taken around 6:07 in the evening of the rover’s 489th Martian day, or sol. Spirit was commanded to stay awake briefly after sending that sol’s data to the Mars Odyssey orbiter just before sunset. This small panorama of the western sky was obtained using Pancam’s 750-nanometer, 530-nanometer and 430-nanometer color filters. This filter combination generates false-color images that are similar to what a human would see, but with the colors slightly exaggerated.I love that. NASA kept Spirit awake so it (and we) could watch the sunset. Isn't that just beautiful? We sent a robot all the way to another planet, and then had it do something humans have been doing since before we touched the monolith. We didn't even learn anything from it . . . or did we? As a commenter at Reddit said, "Hear that? That's the sound of thousands of desktop backgrounds changing." I hope so. I hope a lot of people will look at that picture of our sun, setting over another planet, and remember that the Earth is not the only place in the universe where there is beauty and mystery.