Moon Landings and Mars Rovers: Fascination and Ambivalence

The day before I left on vacation, the front page of the New York Times showed something (well, two things) unusual: black-and-white photographs.

The photo on the left showed a gentle-sloped mountain rising from a desolate plain; on the right, vehicle tracks through rocky dirt. The composition of the photo on the left—framing, shape of mountain, spareness of other detail—reminded me of prints and paintings I’ve seen of Mount Fuji. But that’s not why I tore off the page, scribbled a few notes in pencil, and left it on my desk.

On July 20, 1969, I was seven years old. My parents and brother and I had flown down to Burbank to visit my uncle, the way we did every summer, for a week of barbecues, backyard-pool-swimming, visiting Disneyland, and smog.

My uncle lived in Arcadia, a town pressed up against the San Gabriel Mountains and one of the smoggiest parts of Los Angeles County. The gritty, brown air made for psychedelic sunsets. My brother couldn’t go outside without wheezing, so we played indoors with Matchbox cars on shag carpet. But I digress (easy for me to do about those days).

That Sunday in July, as all the grown-ups gathered around the TV, I hung back, not wanting to look.

The second unusual aspect of those New York Times front page photos a few weeks ago is the subject matter. The mountain, the tire tracks, the dirt, the desolate plain: Mars. The Mars rover, Curiosity, took the photo and made the tracks, controlled by computer commands from a lab in Pasadena, California, not too far from my uncle’s former house.

A quick online search yields several figures for the distance, but even one of the smallest boggles my mind. I don’t understand how a friend’s iPhone can read an email I type into a keyboard, let alone how digitized code can travel forty-eight million miles.

Back in 1969, I didn’t want the astronauts to land on the moon. I had nothing against them personally; when I imagined Apollo 11’s making a wrong turn or getting lost in outer space (danger, Will Robinson!), I did so to protect the moon rather than to injure the men aboard or to turn back science.

My desire, at age seven, was entirely focused and without larger metaphoric implications: Please, please don’t get there.

“Come see! This is history! You’ll tell your grandkids!”

I stood outside, watched the sky, preferring the smoggy opaque dome overhead to the image on the screen. I’d seen enough of how grownups mucked up planet Earth to wonder why they should do the same to the moon. When, years later, I wrote a story about the moon landing from the point of view of a nine-year-old girl named Robin, an editor who read the story admired the imagery, then told me, “We know Robin, we get her. We’ve all been her.”

Valid point about the loss of innocence, about a child thinking she sees what the adults don’t. Still, I’d never met—and still haven’t met—another person who watched the moon landing with the same degree of ambivalence and even dread as I did. If you’re out there, let me know.

And now we’re driving around the red planet, leaving tire treads and who knows what else. (Do rovers emit fumes?) I’m not arguing against this level of exploration, and I’m fascinated by the footage Curiosity beams many millions of miles to the lab in Pasadena.

But I remain haunted by that question that consumed me in 1969: Shouldn’t we get it right down here first?

Yes, we are endowed with curiosity. We can’t stay put anymore than we can breathe water. It’s in our created nature to taste that apple, to peek behind that curtain, to open that box. Curiosity may wreak havoc but it can also yield knowledge, discovery, intimacy, love.

I’m not advocating a return to cave dwelling or leeches as state-of-the-art medical treatment, but I do wonder about going places that our bodies aren’t naturally meant to go. And yet, using that logic, I’d never have boarded an airplane.

In 1969, I preferred fantasy to reality. I wanted green cheese, not actual rocks in the Smithsonian. I was drawn to the unknown, and I wanted the moon to stay far away. Conspiracy theories that the whole thing was filmed in a Hollywood back lot aside, the crackling black-and-white image on my uncle’s TV screen chipped away at the notion of some things being forever out of reach.

I still like make-believe—after all, I devote hours every day to writing fiction—though, as an adult versed in the nuances of adult mucking up, I like to think I don’t see the world as simplistically as I did at age seven.

So I’ll look at the pictures from Curiosity. I’ll read the stories of Pasadena scientists who have been suffering a kind of odd jetlag while living on Mars time (where a day is called a sol and lasts thirty-nine minutes and thirty-five seconds longer than here on Earth) while they “drive” Curiosity.

I’ll wonder how many people could be fed and schools funded with the zillions being spent by NASA. I’ll float between fascination and ambivalence, tethered by hope and skepticism and, yes, gravity.

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  • charlie

    Years ago, I forget the year, there was an eclipse of the sun where I lived. The sky was clear. I went out onto the street to watch the show. As the sky darkened I noticed there were many other people outside at the time. I could not see anyone else stopping to experience the event. At first I was disappointed, even a little miffed. How could there be nobody but me in just a little awe of this event?

    A second later my annoyance was replaced by a surge of pride in my long past college major, Philosophy. Long ago an eclipse might have panicked an entire civilization. Imagine a fear stricken village, abandoning their political leaders and running up the mountain side to the cave of the local spirit healer and begging for rescue from their peril. I picture him telling them, for 5 sacks of grain I’ll give you this bottle of magic potion. Poor it on the head of your leader, mock him and insult him, and that will save you.

    So the panicked citizens pay the 5 sakes of grain, follow the instructions and, it works! They are saved! The spirit healer’s reputation soars.

    One of the greatest achievements of human civilization was when Copernicus proved earth was not the center of the universe. Among other things it reduced the power of spiritual leaders who manipulated the ingorance of the people for their own advantage. Misplaced and manipulated mysticism has caused a lot of human suffering and tragedy. If and when it is proved that life occured someplace besides earth it might be an achievement that surpasses the importance of what Copericus accomplished.

    I can think of two possible reasons why humans developed intelligence and self awareness, to contemplate the heavens (what’s out there), or so that small children can come up with those extraordinary questions they ask to delay bed time so that perhaps they can contemplate the heavens while their parents think about how to answer.

    • Lindsey Crittenden

      Thanks for furthering the conversation, Charlie. You make good points about misplaced and manipulated mysticism –and the manipulation of ignorance. I love the closing image of small children asking extraordinary questions. Here’s to answers that deepen the wonder.

  • Sagrav

    NASA’s budget in 2011 was only $18.5 billion, and that counted for only 0.5 percent of that year’s federal budget. Source:

    From that article:
    “…those who complain that it is a waste to spend money in space forget that NASA creates jobs. According to the agency, it employs roughly 19,000 civil servants and 40,000 contractors in and around its 10 centers. In the San Francisco area alone, the agency says it created 5,300 jobs and $877 million worth of economic activity in 2009. Ohio, a state hard-hit by the Great Recession that is home to NASA’s Plum Brook Research Station and Glenn Research Center, can’t afford to lose nearly 7,000 jobs threatened by NASA cuts.

    Even more people have space-related jobs outside the agency. According to the Colorado Space Coalition, for example, more than 163,000 Coloradans work in the space industry. Though some build rockets for NASA, none show up in the agency’s job data.”

    So the money spent by NASA provides jobs. That, in turn, provides food and education to those job holders’ families.

    When money is invested in one pursuit, it doesn’t remain isolated or disappear from the economy as a whole. NASA spends it on products and services, and those who provide those products and services than go on to spend their money on food, education, or any other pursuit that you may find more ‘worthy’.

    Human beings produce tons of food every year; much of it goes to waste. Many of our poor simply don’t have the jobs necessary to purchase all of this extra food. We have plenty of talented (and under appreciated) teachers; much of their effort goes to waste on teaching children how to pass largely pointless standardized tests. Even if NASA’s $18.5 billion would somehow be reallocated directly to food production and education, do you really think it would make a difference to either of these major issues? What would we say to all of the thousands of newly unemployed aerospace employees whose jobs were sacrificed because we decided that it wasn’t worth exploring our universe because there are still problems “down here”?

    • Lindsey Crittenden

      These facts and figures anchor my admittedly unresearched speculation. Yes, easy (sloppy) answers can be dangerous and reductive. Those questions a seven-year-old asks, and an adult recalls, are in my mind a starting point not a conclusive answer. Thanks for chiming in.

      • John Yum

        What JT says:

        Also, with regard to your response to Sagrav and charlie, I had a hard time divining your meaning through all the sanctimony (i.e., “here’s the answers that deepen the wonder” and “those questions a seven-year-old asks, and an adult recalls”). Can I interpret your reply above as, “Yes, I was making hyperbolic associations that even a quick search on Google would have told me were dangerously wrong and wildly speculative. I’m sorry and I won’t do that again”?

        Or should I interpret your reply as more akin to, “Thank you for the mundane facts. However, my sense of inquiry is guided by a child’s sense of wonder, which means that I don’t need to be bound by facts. Toodles!”?

        Better yet, could you write in plain, concrete, and precise terms that an adult expects in a response from another adult (as opposed to a seven-year-old)? Cheers.

        • I am an engineer and a fan of the robotic-exploration space program, but Crittenden’s questions are not contemptible: they are worth asking. See my response to TychaBrahe below.

        • I too would like an answer to John Yum’s questions

  • Ted Seeber

    Also, all the moon rovers and probes have been either solar or nuclear powered. No fumes at all. *maybe* in Mars’s atmosphere a little CO2 broken apart by sparks into carbon and Ozone, but it would quickly go back.

    • Lindsey Crittenden

      Good to know!

  • NakedAnthropologist

    Or, we could just tax the churches – that would land us about $71 billion per year. I’m betting that that amount of money would feed a lot of people.

  • invivoMark

    Yeah, seriously, wtf NASA?

  • TychaBrahe

    Here is the thing about science: research always pays back. It may not pay back in the way you expected, but it always pays back, and it usually pays back on the order of tenfold or a hundredfold.

    What did we get by sending men to the Moon? Twelve guys got to put their feet on the Moon and we brought back some rocks. Big whip. And the shuttles never got anywhere NEAR the Moon.

    Except that from the space program we got improvements to kidney dialysis, enhancements to water treatment plants, textiles for green buildings, dermal injections, the CAT scan and MRI, improved institutional food processing, advance solar power cells, thermal “space” blankets, cordless power tools, surgical techniques, modern motorized prosthetics, infra-red ear thermometers, aircraft anti-icing systems, highway grooving to increase traction, truck baffles to reduce drag and improve gas mileage, temper memory foam, and on and on and on. Thousands of technological advancements came directly from the space program. The benefit is incalculable.

    The problem is that we can’t sit here and know what benefits we will realize from our forays into space anymore than Queen Isabella could have predicted what giving her jewelry to Cristoforo Colombo to finance a trip to find a new route to Cipango would give the world. The new lands she helped discover brought chocolate to Switzerland, potatoes to Ireland, tomatoes to Italy, tobacco to Turkey, and capsicums to China. It resulted in bifocals, the safety pin, the escalator, the telephone, the tractor, the airplane, Liquid Paper, the Internet, and ultimately put humans on the Moon and their machines on Mars.

    • Part 1 — (I couldn’t get this to post all in one piece, argh)

      I am a fan of NASA’s robotic planetary exploration program, but the spinoffs argument is invalid. Spinoffs are inevitable: it is impossible to spend many billions on technologies of unthinkable complexity like the International Space Station ($100B total cost to US: ), or various military technologies, without creating jobs and new technical knowledge. But the mere existence of jobs and spinoffs does not prove that the “benefit is incalculable,” for it is not true, as various forms of the spinoff argument usually imply, that we would not have got these benefits at all if we did not get them as spinoffs. Directed research could almost certainly have produced all the same knowledge far more efficiently. As for jobs, non-high-tech sectors like education and green energy generally produce more jobs per Federal dollar spent than military and aerospace spending. Today, in fact, the flow in materials science and computer technology is more the other way, from the commercial tech to space systems (e.g., the commercial Kodak Truesense imaging chips used by the Curiosity rover). No mere catalogue of spinoffs can ever prove that big-project money has been well-spent: fat fries out of every steak, but steaks are still an inefficient way to get a bit of fat.

      So it is not mere sanctimoniousness to compare, say, the $100B cost of the Space Station to what could have been accomplished (e.g., jobs and knowledge gains) by spending that money on health care, education, and intelligently end-directed technical and medical research. E.g., one could disappear 2/3 of all private student loan debt with the $100B blown on the shockingly unproductive Space Station ( ). Such priorities actually do compete with each other in the federal budget process. Money’s second life in the economy, which John Yum emphasizes above, works about as well for any form of spending, and does not particularly favor aerospace.

      (continued next comment)

      • Part 2

        Does “education” sound mushy and foofy and tame compared to the glorious dream of “exploring space”? I’ve always felt the pull that dream — it is one reason I got a PhD in Engineering Sciences — but consider this: almost half the US population has essentially no idea what science is and is in outright denial about some of its most thoroughly well-founded explanatory narratives (evolution, global climate change). Scores of millions wander amid magical worlds of right-wing miracle-mongering or new-age “energy” and “Secret” thinking. Our failure to produce a science-literate populace, partly due to diversion of resources to ends other than education, is radical and should be terrifying. The inspirational or educational effects of a half-century of moon shots and space stations has not prevented this slow-motion disaster. If we love science, we might do well to ditch all our astronauts-to-nowhere programs, which would allow us to cut NASA’s budget while maintaining or even increasing funding to the robotic planetary exploration programs that produce virtually all of the beautiful and important new knowledge that NASA creates.

        Having said all this, NASA’s budget IS a pimple on the pumpkin. It’s our military budget, doubled since 2001 ( ) and almost half of the entire planet’s military budget ( ), that is the great sin. The US military spends more to air-condition tents in the desert every year than NASA’s annual budget: . But that the national-security establishment wastes a whole mountain range of dollars doesn’t mean NASA can’t waste a mountain of them, or that it doesn’t matter if it does.

        It certainly does not justify spewing hatred over anyone who has doubts. It is notable that Crittenden, the religious one in these exchanges, sounds less like a bitter-hearted True Believer than her critics. Not at all like one, in fact. She could have done better research, as she has graciously admitted, but her rhetoric remains controlled under fire. I admire that.

  • IslandBrewer

    Wow. Can’t be bothered to actually put a little time into researching what NASA actually does? Or how much it costs? I’m so sorry that nothing NASA has done can alleviate lazy writing and researching. I suppose if one is prone to lazy thinking to begin with, it’s not surprising.

    “I’m not advocating a return to cave dwelling or leeches as state-of-the-art medical treatment, but I do wonder about going places that our bodies aren’t naturally meant to go. And yet, using that logic, I’d never have boarded an airplane.”

    Well, thanks to people who DON’T think like you, we do have airplanes, explored the moon, explored the depths of the oceans, read email on smartphones that have been typed on computers thousands of miles from us in seconds, cured diseases, and can watch images of neural synapses firing, as they fire.

    I definitely see how theists might view science as antithetical to their worldview. It requires thinking (the non-lazy kind).

    • Oh, puh-leeeze. Theists can be lazy thinkers, sure, but so can atheists, as your concluding two-sentence zinger illustrates. Religious believers have done and are doing important work in all branches of science, and you know it — or should. Dobzhansky, Heisenberg, von Weizsacker, Francis Collins . . . Each of these Christians has done more hard-core science than you or I will ever know.

  • KH

    I understand the fear of subjecting something magical to dull reality – but even if there isn’t anything edible up there, the moon, the solar system, and the vast enormousness of space is still incredible. Cheese the mind can handle – entire worlds floating millions upon millions of miles out in nothingness, and you’re talking about existence on a whole other scale.

    Your question of “Why NASA”, or even more generally “Why Space?” has been asked over and over throughout the years. In 1970, just after we landed on the moon, a nun in feeding orphans in Africa asked the same question, wondering if the money used to fuel the rockets couldn’t be put to better use feeding the hungry children she saw every day. The associate director of the space program at the time wrote her this reply I think he makes a good case as to why research is important on a very general level, as well as the difficulties in simply moving that money somewhere it will ‘be of more use.’

  • Erika

    Thank you for a very interesting article