OpinionOpinion L.A.

Thanks, Curiosity, your tiny Earth 'selfie' is a big wake-up call

NASA Mars Exploration ProgramNASAVladimir PutinNeil ArmstrongJustin Bieber

Oh gosh, it turns out that old Walt was right: It is a small world after all. Or at least it is to NASA’s Curiosity rover, which snapped a picture of Earth and the moon, looming bright but tiny in the night sky, from the surface of Mars recently.

In the picture, Earth is so small that NASA helpfully put an arrow pointing to it on the photo it sent out; although scientists say that were a human standing on Mars next to Curiosity, he or she could see Earth with the naked eye. Which is not bad, considering that the planets were 99 million miles apart when the Earth “selfie” was snapped.

There have been other famous photographs of Earth taken from space, such as Apollo 8’s “Earthrise” in 1968 showing a breathtakingly blue Earth just over the moon’s edge. But that picture illustrated the beauty of our planet.

Curiosity’s photo, on the other hand, shows our -- it sounds almost terrible to say -- insignificance in this great big universe. You just can’t look at it and not feel really small. If Earth and all of its inhabitants were gone tomorrow -- yes, even you, “libtards” and “Republithugs” and Al Qaeda fighters and Syrian rebels and Vladimir Putin and Miley and even Kim and Kanye -- would any other life form out there know, or even care?

NASA puts the cost of the Curiosity rover at $2.5 billion. That’s not exactly pocket change. We could feed a lot of hungry folks with that money, cure a lot of sick people, even pay down some debt or put something away for a rainy day (not that we are having many of those in California these days).

But humans are wanderers. Why, just recently we’ve learned that humans meandered out of Africa, met up with some Neanderthals, messed around, meandered back to Africa again, left again -- well, you get the idea.

So Columbus didn’t look out at the Atlantic and say, “It’s nice here in Spain; why do I need to cross that ocean?” And Neil Armstrong didn’t say, “That’s one small step for a man ...” while jumping down from a private jet in Aruba with Justin Bieber in tow.

Right now, we’re wandering space with rovers. But soon, we’ll want to go see for ourselves. We’ll want to stand on Mars and look with our naked eyes at Earth, at home. And we’ll have the aptly named Curiosity to thank for that -- for showing us the way.

But we won’t be able to do that if we don’t remember what else Curiosity has shown us: Earth is all we’ve got. If we blow it up in the name of one god or another, or if we fail to safeguard its resources and its climate, then someday someone else will land on Mars, look down at Curiosity and say, “Wonder where that came from?”

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Follow Paul Whitefield on Twitter @PaulWhitefield1 and Google +

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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NASA Mars Exploration ProgramNASAVladimir PutinNeil ArmstrongJustin Bieber
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