Humanizing Mars : sublimity and imperialism in rover landscape photography




O'Beirne, Caitlin Michele

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Images of the Martian landscape from NASA rovers Curiosity and Perseverance visualize the farthest-reaching frontiers of what some will identify as US imperialism and others as global scientific enterprise. The NASA images present new horizons, familiar as they are foreign, for experiencing the sublime landscape. The parallels in conditions of light, atmosphere, and geological formation make the Martian landscape appear familiar in ways that landscapes of the Moon or an asteroid, the only other extraterrestrial bodies to be photographed by rovers, do not. It is also the humanized vantage point and mobility of the rover that connects with our conventional aesthetic sensibilities. This essay unpacks the aesthetic rhetoric of the rover landscape photographs while also considering the history and technology that positions them within a discourse of reconnaissance photography and military surveillance. For example, the technology of the telescope has long-held association with the optics of power and imperial prospect. Anthropomorphized machines (the rovers) serve as surrogates for the human body on Mars, providing both presence and testimony. The Mars rover photographs represent an investment in the visualization of the US space exploration narrative. Leading institutions in this effort, NASA and the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum, promote space-age nostalgia and a national narrative of exceptionalism aligned with techno-scientific advancement in space - past, present, and future. The open access online databases maintained by NASA, dense with photography and other data from missions, including the Mars rovers, constitute a critical site of public and artistic engagement with the material culture of space. This essay will look at raw image files from those databases as well as ones selected and edited by NASA for web circulation. The significance of Mars rover photographs can be understood through the conventions of the technological sublime and as aestheticized scientific data.



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