Seeing Red

The act of looking at Mars has always been vicarious

For the last couple of months, I’ve felt a kinship with the Curiosity rover that has, since 2012, been imaging and collecting samples from the surface of Mars. There’s not much to this affinity — our similarities are few and can be applied to a not inconsiderable percentage of the population. For instance: we are both Leos; we are both fated to solitude. I too rove, often taking photographs of my surroundings, and uploading them to Instagram, where they’re seen by faraway viewerships. And hadn’t I felt a kinship with the twin rovers Opportunity and Spirit as well, merely because I am also a twin? (As if a machine could ever know the trials and joys of twinhood.) I have no emotion invested in Curiosity, just a casual obsession in which I comb through the images transmitted and decoded nearly each day, each sol, from over 200 million miles away.

Many astronauts report experiencing an almost spiritual transformation upon seeing Earth from beyond its gravity. In this phenomenon, known as the overview effect, an awesome change in physical perspective begets an inner one as well. Feelings of malaise ebb into frissons of compassion and, by virtue of extreme distance, an urge to protect our planet from harm manifests in the beholder. Gene Cernan, the 11th person to walk on the moon and one of the few people to ever witness this cognitive shift, went so far as to insist that the sight was proof of God. “It was too beautiful to happen by accident,” he explained. Elaine Scarry, in On Beauty and Being Just, outlines a contract between a beautiful object or person and its observer: “As the beautiful being confers on the perceiver the gift of life, so the perceiver confers on the beautiful being the gift of life.” Of course, when the being is Earth, this transaction is literalized; to our finite knowledge, it’s where all of life resides.

While Martian picturesques are invariably unpeopled, their most important presence is an implied human body: the viewer’s. Rovers are proxies not for mankind, but for you

There is no life on Mars. Its parched landscape of dunes and craters are, for now, enthusiastically inanimate. This is something the closeups seem to uphold. Cameras have been on Mars for over 50 years, and although Martian imagery has become both clearer and ubiquitous in the past decade, there is no term for the effect — both vertiginous and monotonous — of seeing the planet up close. Perhaps the occasion doesn’t merit one. Reviewing Curiosity’s trove of raw images is not an aesthetic revelation; the rover’s Hazcam and Navcam images tend to depict jagged terrain, a black and white horizon ceding to grainy sfumato. Because the Mastcam produces “true color” images — seen as though refracted through the rods and cones of a human retina — its palette gravitates toward dusty hazel and butterscotch hues. Sol after sol, the same textures and colors seem to blunt my curiosity rather than whet it. 

In Seeing Like a Rover, Janet Vertesi’s ethnographical look into how rover images are crafted, the author describes the formal properties of what she calls the Martian picturesque. Intended for public consumption, this genre is often characterized by sweeping panoramas that evoke the Western vistas of Ansel Adams and Edward Weston or the untouched Edens of 19th-century American landscape painting. Tracks curving into the distance become wagon wheels on a pioneer trail. Blue sunsets suggest the askew pulchritude of an exotic world. Like the photography of travel brochures, the Martian picturesque is composed by rover operators so that the place depicted is just that, a place, one defined by smooth generalities and seamless experiences. While these portrayals function as postcards in which the alien landscape becomes terrestrial, habitable, and beautiful, they also satisfy and expand a large network of donors whose capital is needed to “put American boots on the face of Mars,” as Vice President Mike Pence has so elegantly put it.

While Martian picturesques are invariably unpeopled, their most important presence is an implied human body: the viewer’s. At one point, Vertesi recounts attending a press conference where a promotional image of a Martian panorama was unveiled, a version in which an operator had photoshopped a small rover onto the terrain for scale. In an image where the mediator of Martian sight is entirely visible, a robotic perspective shifts to that of human witness. Recast as an alibi for the travestied landscape, Vertesi experienced a kind of bodily rupture. “Suddenly I was standing on Mars alone, outside the ‘we’ of the robotic body, looking at the rover looking at the crater.” Unfettered from the vision of the Opportunity rover, she felt disembodied, but from a machine rather than a body. If the moment tidily underscores the ways in which we increasingly embody nonhuman agents of sight, that’s because recent rovers have been specifically designed to construct images like humans do, an aspect perhaps more famously (if less representatively) evinced by Curiosity’s viral selfies. Vertesi notes how frequently the second person is deployed in the language surrounding Martian imagery, how captions often mention that a certain view is “What you would see if you were standing on Mars.” Anthropomorphized and at human height, rovers are proxies not for mankind, but for you.

It’s unsurprising to learn from Vertesi’s research that the technicians working on Opportunity and Spirit considered the rovers extensions of their own bodies, and vice versa. What intrigued me were the surprising ways personal life became entwined with machine and landscape. For example, one scientist found herself unable to move her right wrist while gardening. She discovered later that day a detail that she would have surely otherwise forgotten, that the right wheel of the Spirit rover was jammed. An engineer underwent surgery on his shoulder at the same time Opportunity’s “shoulder joint” was having problems, elevating it, for him, beyond a footnote in an inventory of technical glitches. When scientists needed to informally label smaller geological features without the bureaucracy of an international nomenclatural program, they often chose the names baseball players — many team members liked baseball — or friends. The foreign terrain becomes ciphered with the names of Earthlings.

For a series titled Per Pulverem Ad Astra (2007), the artist Eva Stenram downloaded online digital images of Martian terrain and converted them to film negatives. Before processing the negatives — photos of Mars taken by Viking probes in 1976 — she left them around her apartment to collect dust, so that white wisps and scratches appear on the final prints. In her sepia-tinged photographs, the Martian landscape is reimagined through a personal inscription of human skin, hair, and dirt. If one came upon these photos by chance, they would be forgiven for thinking they were looking at an Arizonan wasteland, for assuming the irregularities were the result of a processing error. Ultimately, Stenram’s project derives its disquieting force from the ways her effacements collapse both physical distances and those between opposites: vacancy and occupancy, home and foreignness, authorship and anonymity, utility and abstraction. They ask: Why can’t the cosmic also be intimate?

Virtual spaces usually lack any “real” coordinates, but Mars might also be considered a sort of virtual zone, where sight, and thus reality, is only made possible by screens and algorithms

In Mythologies, Roland Barthes argues that during the wave of Cold War-era UFO conspiracies, Mars became an “Earth of dreams,” a mirror in which French society saw their own class anxieties. “Most likely if we were to disembark in our turn on the Mars we have designed, we should find there merely Earth itself, and between these two products of the same history we should be unable to determine which is our own,” he writes. As hoaxes based on rover photography are circulated in online forums, YouTube videos, and fringe tabloids of glimpsed humanoid figures, a snake camouflaged against rock, an orphaned shoe that may have belonged to Martian royalty in what is evidently a post-fact solar system, meaning-making often spirals into a frenzied pursuit of alternative truth.

The articles that humor today’s outlandish conspiracies — exploiters, ironically, of what headline writers call the “curiosity gap” — can be dismissed as treacherous clickbait, but they also reveal provocative questions about the veracity of rover images within a visual culture where nothing can be authenticated. Or perhaps, sifting through NASA’s images, the distrusting simply find the Martian landscape too imaginable to be real.

This spring, Google announced in a blog post that they were expanding their cloud infrastructure by building a base in Gale Crater, close to the Curiosity rover. The post included a link that, once activated, takes the reader to Google Street View. There, plunked into an expanse of red gravel, is a nondescript building. When clicked, the quiet majesty of the landscape becomes replaced with the banal interior of an office. For an April Fool’s joke, it’s a bizarrely elaborate fiction, right down to a retro-looking poster tacked to a vending machine stocked with La Croix that reads “Take a trip on the new Dune Voyager.” The company even went as far as to quietly append a satellite image of the headquarters onto Google Mars, a decision that, of course, fueled various theories of a botched coverup that still persist.

Elsewhere on the internet, 360-degree experiences reminiscent of GSV really do use rover panoramas. These sites afford the same arid views as two-dimensional photographs, but here those views strive to improve upon the mere pictorial, attempting to place the observer in the environment so that it becomes a familiar place, albeit one without the typical requisites needed to form a sense of place-ness, such as culture, memory, peculiarity, or life. While the overview effect is inherently unphotographable, only experienced through a physical (un)grounding, the act of seeing Mars has always been a vicarious one. And although virtual spaces are usually associated with environments that lack any “real” coordinates, Mars might also be considered a sort of virtual zone, one where sight, and thus reality, is always made possible by screens and algorithms.

For many, this physical unattainability is itself a reason to explore the planet. If seeing Earth from a distance prompts revelations of compassion and affirmation, seeing Mars in closeup inspires the giddy thrill of conquest. When Google Earth and NASA developed an open-source Google Mars globe in 2009 with the aid of orbiter imaging, complete with surface-level exploration and itineraries, its interactivity fostered for users the illusion of discovery. Marketed as a “tour,” the friction between geography and place in this enterprise creates the spark of adventure.

As Lisa Messeri observes in Placing Outer Space, the globe’s accessibility and three-dimensionality “establish Mars as both a place and, more important, a destination.” She continues:

The democratic ethos and desire for openness […] exist alongside a state project that constrains how exploration occurs. […] The 3-D technology that facilitates an immersive experience invites a sense of the real even as Mars remains emblematic of what Baudrillard (1983) has called the hyperreal, in that the map precedes the territory.

As scientists continue their intergalactic endoscopy, imaging farther and farther sites, these hyperreal maps and globes can only be expected to proliferate. Just as the “map precedes the territory,” the eye precedes the body, turning outer space itself into a kind of horror vacui where everything is seen. Yet both Messeri and Vertesi are careful to invoke Donna Haraway’s famous critique in her 1988 essay “Situated Knowledges” of the relativist “view from nowhere,” or the myth of objective perspective, to emphasize how Martian sight is ensconced within institutions not free from political motives. When it comes to Mars, ours is a borrowed vision.

Immersive experiences on Mars are nothing new. In 1910, you could visit for just a dime. That’s when, at the cost of $50,000, Coney Island upgraded their main Trip to the Moon attraction into a Martian one. In the ride, 100 passengers boarded a large fuselage that, through a pulley system, maneuvered its way through the atmosphere to an outlandishly designed biosphere, complete with backdrops and a small cast of alien actors. The event was, obviously, more thespian than educational, and unlike many of today’s space immersions, it guaranteed a return trip. Eventually the amusement became converted into a restaging of the Battle of the Marne, the mysteries of another world replaced with the devastations of our own.

Just as the “map precedes the territory,” the eye precedes the body, turning outer space itself into a kind of horror vacui where everything is seen

Virtual reality’s most pronounced shortcoming — its inability to extract you from your physical body — is exacerbated when the experience is centered on taking you out of your world. Last month, a virtual reality experience produced by Fusion and backed by NASA was released across a variety of platforms, where users take on the role of an astronaut who belongs to the first group of people ever to tread Martian soil. With a yawning, ochre landscape simulated by data from orbiters and scored by the London Symphony Orchestra, 2030 is marketed as an immersive experience meant to pique interest in NASA’s mission to send humans to Mars by the 2030s. The premise is straightforward. After a series of objectives that include picking up and depositing flags, you’re free to wander with nothing to do. While total verisimilitude is inadvisable when the atmosphere is as deadly as it is on Mars, 2030 is so averse to realistic narrative that it makes you invincible, more rover than human. Because it’s a Martian voyage with zero risk and only the mirage of autonomy, it feels, in some sense, like another map.

Perhaps the future of space tourism will consist of hundreds of downloadable exoplanets and moons coded like free-roam video games, the universe a celestial sandbox enhanced by the poignant adagios of the LSO. This isn’t to say that the project’s lack of immediate or moral purpose is not in some ways a relief. Still, even though moving through the wilderness of Mars with a VR headset provides an appealing escapism, 2030 is more than just the latest cyclorama to show how looking at Mars has long been mistaken with experiencing it. It also suggests this distinction is becoming more and more irrelevant in the digital age. Yet because it resorts to what already exists — desolate topography — 2030 is unconcerned with summoning the imaginative empathy or possible futures that define many VR projects based on “real life.” Perhaps this is, for some, the lone solace guaranteed by Martian simulacra: a journey devoid of all affect save your own, an environment that is innately meaningless. Hence, from Earth, immersive experiences of Mars can feel like apotheoses of digital remove.

“Next best thing to being there,” a NASA news release once declared. The photo, which is really a quilt of hundreds of false color photos, offers a panoptic glimpse of an ancient crater. Although the image is foregrounded by the Opportunity rover’s hardware, there is no sense of scale; rather, the machinery seems to belong to the landscape, a city grid dwarfed by the voracious desert. Even more disorienting: The crater’s beige and orange hues cede to bruisy cyans toward to the horizon, tinging the vista with an impossible strangeness. The rover’s tracks are visible in the center of the composition, twisted into a rough lemniscate. Viewing the scene, which was miscolored to stress certain geologic differences, my first thought was not Gertrude Stein’s quip that “There is no there there,” but a question that arrived with a little guilt and ignorance. Why was the next best thing not enough? Wasn’t this, really, the best thing?

It’s now widely understood that a mission to Mars would likely result in catastrophic boredom, a thought that would never have crossed the minds of the planet’s first mappers, mainly because boredom itself is such a modern concept. I try to imagine how the Italian astronomer Giovanni Schiaparelli felt in 1877, the year he famously beheld what he alleged was a nexus of artificial canals throughout the Red Planet, a claim that held great scientific sway until as late as the early 20th century. Now, astrophotography has become so accurate and accessible that it can feel almost mundane. But for me, this tug-of-war between beauty and tedium, between comfort and unthinkable danger, is part of the allure of poring over Martian jpegs online, usually within hours of their posting. These low quality images are meticulously timestamped and yet seem to belong to a land where the passage of time has already come and gone. Easily obtainable and yet mostly unsought, they offer the same dim excitements as when I happen upon found photography, a genre the internet has complicated.

Curiosity doesn’t have its own Instagram. There is an unofficial fan account, @marscuriosity, which has more than 100,000 followers. Its steward uploads “un-retouched” photos from NASA taken by the rover, mostly true-color images, though there is the occasional photo that’s been white-balanced “to reflect what the scene would look like if it were on Earth,” a jarring hypothetical. In one of the account’s most popular posts, with a little over 2,000 likes, a silhouette of ragged Martian terrain sits under the livid ombre of a night sky. It looks like it could be Earth, except it can’t be — if you pinch and drag the glass, you’ll see it, us, the speck of Earth millions of miles away, like a dead pixel in the universe’s black screen, a beautiful accident.

Zack Hatfield is a writer living in New York. His criticism has appeared in the Paris Review Daily, Artforum, BOMB Magazine, and the Los Angeles Review of Books.