Opinion Columns & Blogs

Op Images 2013: Space reminds us how small we are in the universe

Take a good look because it’s not easy to see, and maybe that’s the point.

Last summer, NASA’s Cassini spacecraft snapped hundreds of photos from the dark side of Saturn. The agency then meticulously pieced together those images to produce a spectacular panorama of Saturn and its rings from a backlit view. The entire shot spans 405,000 miles across.

NASA conveniently provided a fully annotated version of the image. By isolating one quadrant, we can zero in on the tiny speck that is Earth, a sobering reminder of our place in the universe and also how we’ve abandoned the true possibilities of the space race for the trivial pursuits of what seems to be an increasingly selfish society.

In the 1960s, it was all about “tomorrow,” news stories or exhibits about “The Home of Tomorrow,” “The City of Tomorrow,” “The Transportation of Tomorrow.” All that ended after we stopped going to the moon.

The new budget deal in Congress calls for more cuts in NASA’s budget. They say there isn’t the money for space exploration. Yet the $850 billion bank bailout – TARP – was greater than the entire 50-year running budget of NASA.

• Total cost of Cassini’s mission: $3.26 billion.

• Proposed NASA budget for 2014: $16.6 billion, roughly what the agency got back in 1984, when adjusted for inflation, according to NASA.

• 2014 budget for discretionary defense spending: $520.5 billion.

Perhaps it’s a manifestation of a society that screams, “Me, me me!” “My needs are important; yours aren’t.” That’s how Congress acts. Us, too. No compromise. No empathy. It’s all about my side, not yours.

Copernicus and Galileo had their scientific works banned because they dared to advocate that we are not the center of the universe. How different is that from today’s all-about-me behavior, from our narcissistic use of social media to our petulant refusal to acknowledge that other people of different politics, cultures or nations might have a better idea? Instead of reaching out, like the Odyssean tale, we have become a land of the lotus eaters.

In a year when the Oxford English Dictionary declared “selfie” the “word of 2013,” I can’t think of a better photo to remind us that we are not as “selfie-important” as we think we are.