The first thing I noticed about it was its obscurity. Compared to the recklessly tall missiles that span the entire height of the building and the lofty exhibits chronicling the most famous excursions in space known to man, this little photo gallery in the back corner of the museum is easily overlooked by the typical visitor on their way to get a closer look at the grandiose aircrafts scattered about the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum.
Spirit & Opportunity: 10 Years Roving Across Mars captures the findings of the two aforementioned Mars rovers: Spirit and Opportunity. It chronicles the decade that the two rovers have spent roaming the Red Planet.
Unlike the neighboring exhibits that consist largely of extravagant relics of past space crafts and historical footage of rocket launches, this low-key gallery focuses more on the aesthetically pleasing nature of space exploration. The Martian landscape is artfully presented through tidy panoramic shots, striking thermal images, and black and white photographs that reveal variation in the Red Planet’s terrain.
The most impressive pieces of the exhibit are undoubtedly the full panoramic shots of expansive landscapes, captured over the span of several days by the rovers’ central cameras. Some of these depict the rovers’ erratic tracks in the sand behind the machines. Tracks running in several haphazard circles show the rover on its mission to analyze any particular object of interest it comes across. Smaller black and white images of jagged, rocky terrain among smoother sand dunes play on the wide differences in texture of neighboring topography. With several of the beautiful thermal images that pop out in full color against the largely earth-toned gallery, it’s easy to forget that all you’re looking at are pictures of dirt, sand, and rocks.
The actual goal of the mission to Mars, to search for potential traces of water and maybe even of life isn’t really explored in the gallery. While most of the images were captivating, the endless pictures of open, dry landscapes and close-up shots of rocks had a slightly anticlimactic feel. Upon entering the gallery, the first writing you come across is a large blurb introducing the gallery as an exhibition “celebrating the amazing images and achievements of the Mars Exploration Rovers on the 10th anniversary of their landings on the Red Planet.” With such high claims, you cannot help but feel a twinge of disappointment at the lack of any presentation of significant scientific findings.
If you remember that the gallery is largely an opportunity to portray the beauty of Mars rather than the data collected by the rovers on the mission, the display is undeniably successful in taking a seemingly “barren” planet and highlighting its understated allure.
The exhibit serves as a nice change of pace among several of the other often overwhelming exhibits of the museum, full of dense information and history of space exploration. It’s a relaxing pit-stop for visitors looking to get a quick breath in between Time and Navigation and Apollo: To The Moon. Definitely check out that setting sun if you’re looking for a jolt that all-too-familiar realization of our tiny place in the universe—just one of eight planets looking towards the same sun.
Air and Space Museum
600 Independence Ave, S.W.
10:00 a.m. – 5:30 p.m. daily