A Space in Time

Click for the universe … Your home computer, thanks to the windows that NASA has poked in space, is the site of the greatest show on earth. A deskbound cosmic pilgrim beckons us to an available sublimity

In the evenings, when my particular piece of Earth has turned away from the Sun, and is exposed instead to the rest of the cosmos, I sit in front of a keyboard, log on, and seek out the windows that look down at the planets and out at the stars. It's a markedly different experience from looking at reproductions on paper. What I see is closer to the source. In fact, it's indistinguishable from the source. These are images that have never registered on a negative. Like the Internet itself, they are products of a digitized era. Over the past couple of years I've been monitoring the long rectangular strips of Martian surface being beamed across the void, in a steady stream of zeroes and ones, from the umbrella-shaped high-gain antenna of the Mars Global Surveyor spacecraft. These pictures are so fresh that their immediacy practically crackles. Call it "chrono-clarity." That bluish wispy cloud, for example, hovering over the Hecates Tholus volcano, which rears above the pockmarked surface of the Elysium Volcanic Region in the Martian eastern hemisphere—it has barely had time to disperse before I, or anyone with Internet access, can see it in all its spooky beauty. The volcano emerges from the pink Martian desert, which looks organic and impressionable—like human skin, or the surface of a clay pot before firing. The tenuous cloud floats near the volcano's mouth, as if in prelude to an eruption. It's a picture composed of millions of dots and dashes of data, produced by a transmission technique just a few steps removed from Morse code; but it reveals a landscape the likes of which Samuel Morse, let alone the ranks of Earth-based astronomers who have surveyed the planets since well before Babylonian times, could scarcely have envisioned.

In case there was any doubt, many of those good old science-fiction predictions from the 1950s and the 1960s are coming true. "NEW SQUAD OF ROBOTS READY TO ASSAULT MARS" read a 1998 headline in the online Houston Chronicle, stirring submerged memories of my adolescent readings of Isaac Asimov's I, Robot stories. But Asimov's sentient robots were frequently confused. Something always seemed to be going wrong with them, and the mayhem that followed could inevitably be traced back to a programming error by their human handlers—a situation not unfamiliar to those running NASA's Mars program, which was temporarily grounded after a catastrophic pair of failures in late 1999. (The Mars Climate Orbiter was lost owing to the stark failure by one group of engineers to translate another group's figures into metric units of measurement, and the Mars Polar Lander because for some unfathomable reason its landing gear hadn't been adequately tested.)

Elsewhere on the Web
Links to related material on other Web sites.

Mars Exploration Homepage
Information about the planet and current exploratory missions. Posted by NASA.

For all their formidable prescience, Asimov and his contemporaries Arthur C. Clarke and Robert Heinlein didn't quite conjure up that still-startling compound of populist forum, deep archive, and global amphitheater called the Internet. I picture a packed arena of Romans, teeming and kaleidoscopic, at the height of the empire. They're savoring the gods'-eye view, watching the Red Planet turn. Would they have seen it as territory to conquer? Would they have sent in the legions? Mars, after all, was named after the Roman god of war, the father of Romulus and Remus. And what about our age—which way, in the end, will we go? "Earth is the cradle of the mind," said the pioneering Russian space-flight theorist Konstantin Tsiolkovsky. "But we cannot live in a cradle forever."

A low hum resounds from the tiny fan recessed in my computer—a propeller venting warmth from the machinery of virtual travel. With rusty Martian sand dunes still undulating across the screen, I notice that outside, the Moon is rising over subzero Central Europe. The city below it is quiet, subdued under snow. Beyond brick smokestacks a familiar cool light defines the icy sphere. A ghostly mass of battered rock, Earth's satellite is an archetypal solar-system object, with surface features echoing those of many of the planets and moons arrayed in far-flung archipelagos around the Sun. But it's much more than that—at least in the human context. The longer one considers it, the more its tidal influence grows. Without that luminescent lure would there even have been a pull to leave this planet?

Elsewhere on the Web
Links to related material on other Web sites.

Far Side of the Moon
A photo of the moon taken by Apollo 16. Posted by NASA.

Apollo Lunar Surface Journal
Photographs, reports, and general information about lunar missions. Posted by NASA.

The Project Apollo Archive
A privately maintained Web site that "serves as an online reference source and repository of digital images pertaining to the historic manned lunar landing program."

Deciding to take a closer look, I accelerate away from Mars and shoot thirty years into the past—descending rapidly through the strata of the Apollo archives. I quickly find an excellent picture of a three-quarters moon, taken by a large-format mapping camera during one of the later manned missions, in the early 1970s. Almost the entire ravaged face is visible, with tactile gradations of surface texture readily apparent—craters edging gradually toward the terminator, that endlessly migratory line between day and night, and into darkness. There's a three-dimensional, convex quality to the image. But it looks somehow odd. I realize that I'm looking down at a lunar surface divided between the side always oriented toward Earth—the face with a face, so to speak—and the far side. Two of the familiar eastern mares, or seas, are situated here on the left side of the picture—in the hemisphere visible from Earth. On the right, facing deep space, well east of the immense circular basin of Mare Crisium, the battered back of the Moon is submerged in elongated shadows.

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