When the View From Space Is Meaningless

You can't see the tragedy of 9/11 from orbit.


I have seen many space photos of particles moving through air. Volcanic eruptions, forest fires, dust storms. And now, every year around this time, a satellite image of smoke rising from the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001 appears in a box in one of my social-media feeds.

The calendar pages are torn away. The earth circles the sun. The feed recycles what the people clicked last year, and the year before, and the year before.

NASA made this picture of our world from the International Space Station. Most of the images our satellites return to our computers emphasize the scale and grandeur of what they show. A mountain will rise above a plain. A plankton bloom will stretch across a sea. An African dust storm will feed a South American forest.

The sublime works on multiple levels in these pictures. There is the physical phenomenon in view: Mountains dwarf humans! But the technological sublime of taking a photo from space emphasizes our dominion: Humanity dwarfs mountains.

This double movement feels good. It triggers a sense of collective triumph and power, while reminding individuals they are small, inconsequential mammals alone. It is not for nothing that space photos (one in particular) are credited with touching off the modern environmental movement. People love space photos.

But this 9/11 image is different. It tells us almost nothing about 9/11, what it did, how it worked, and why it mattered. How small the island looks, how puny the plume. It's no bigger than other fires the space station has seen, no grander than a gas flare and no more distinct. From space it's just another plume of smoke.

The old space photo trick—minimize humans, maximize humanity—doesn't work here. There is no easy lesson about the power of our collective action, or if it does, it's not one that we should rehearse. I don't want to see this event from such a great distance.

Maybe, over time, the format (from space) will begin to make sense, as the attack itself shrinks into history. As the world gets farther away in time, perhaps the detachment will resonate.

For now, though, 9/11 from space hides everything that matters, and showing only what doesn't.