Last Sunday I stayed up in order to watch the Curiosity rover land on Mars.
My dad mentions from time to time how when he was eight years old, his father woke him up in the middle of the night to see the first moon landing on television. That was July 20th, 1969, so a similar time of year, and it was a happening. It was breathless, it was acute, it reverberated outward in a tangible, meaningful way. Everyone came together cleanly, united by pride and awe, and watched.
I can’t help but think that the world isn’t so conducive to that kind of singular event any longer. Yes, we Tweet and we Instagram and we Tumbl, we can make stories and information far more public far more quickly than ever before, but sometimes so much noise can seem like it muffles rather than amplifies. We hear instantly about progress and death and innovation and communication. We have access to millions of hours of footage, billions of photographs, and the multiplicative opinions and analyses of everyone with an Internet connection. On my most optimistic days, I feel lucky, privileged that I get to have the pulse of the universe at my fingertips. At my worst, I feel laden down. What’s our sharp, thrilling, expansive event, I wonder? What will make us all sit up and take notice?
I’m squatting at the Brooklyn home of a new, excellent friend right now, sleeping in her younger sister’s bedroom while the family is in France. The room has a loft, a skylight, and a life-size Bernese mountain dog stuffed animal. I couldn’t find the landing anywhere on television, so I watched on my laptop while my friend’s orange cat butted his head against my legs. His name is Pomme, which means apple, but sounds like “bum” when I say it no matter how hard I try to match my friend’s Gallic vowels. We had come home from a night spent huddled in another friend’s apartment, eating Chinese food and flipping between the Olympics and a show called “Bar Rescue,” as a freak rainstorm tore through the city. I had planned on going to Times Square to watch the landing on a gigantic screen, but the lightning put a stop to that; I actually caught myself wondering for a split second whether the inclement weather would affect Curiosity. We took a car service back, although neither of us has the money for it.
It felt oddly private to me, clicking through channel after channel until finally settling for a grainy live feed on NASA’s website. But not private: the ticker at the bottom of the screen kept track of everyone who had tuned in (1.4 million, by the time I went to sleep) and how many people were watching at a time (hovering around 200,000). I found the numbers soothing, especially during the slowest parts of the broadcast, when the poor scientists were dragged away from their screens and headsets to explain something to the camera that was both oversimplified and barely comprehensible. I would scratch Pomme’s head during these lulls, and he would try and plant himself firmly between me and my laptop. I liked watching the miles tick down between the rover and the surface of Mars, just as the number of viewers steadily rose.
I know next to nothing about science, even less about space. (Although one of my favorite things I have ever made is an embroidery sampler of a Carl Sagan quote: “If you wish to make an apple pie from scratch, you must first invent the universe.”) I like Radiolab and The Story Collider; I like Popular Science and WIRED. Narrative science, distilled science, science made palatable for an English major who took Intro Psych to fulfill her quantitative requirement in college. And so the part I loved best about the other night, what made me glad I’d stayed up despite my unearned exhaustion and the beef chow mein curdling in my stomach, was the reaction from the NASA employees at the moment of transmission. There had been polite smatterings of applause when the rover touched down and when contact had been reestablished, there had been some nail-biting during the (totally overwrought) Seven Minutes of Terror, but it wasn’t until that first grey, hardly distinguishable photo came through that the whole room was roaring on its feet.
The picture didn’t mean much to me on its own; you wouldn’t know it came from over 35 million miles away without an accompanying, poorly-punned headline. But seeing what it meant to these guys was everything. Seeing numbers give way to wonder. We did that, I thought. Someone, a lot of someones, saw the deep value in making an apple pie from scratch, and even more people instinctively desired to bear witness. I fell asleep shortly after the broadcast tapered off, in my friend’s little sister’s bedroom in the city I’ve adopted on the planet that just reached out to another. Pomme lay purring across my feet.
By Alanna Okun