The Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum’s One World Connected gallery now features two artifacts from the Long Now Foundation: a prototype of The Clock of The Long Now’s face and a Rosetta Disk. Together, the two artifacts are placed at the end of the gallery, serving as symbols of the need to consider the long-term future in our decision-making in the present.
One World Connected, which opened in the autumn of 02022 as part of the museum’s renovations, focuses on how the aerospace revolution that began in the mid-twentieth century brought about two notable shifts: “the ease in making connections across vast distances and a new perspective of Earth as humanity’s home.” In an interview with Long Now Ideas, Dr. Teasel Muir-Harmony, the exhibit’s curator, said that the gallery’s goal was to show “how aerospace has transformed our experience of Earth” over the past century, contextualizing the aerospace history showcased in the rest of the museum’s galleries in a broader sociological and technological context.
A key part of that transformation were the first images of the whole Earth from space. The One World Connected gallery features a number of items related to those first photographs taken on the Apollo missions, including two issues of the Whole Earth Catalog. The exhibit showcases how our perspective on seeing the whole Earth from space has shifted over time. In the span of a lifetime, images of the Earth from space have gone from “rare and unfamiliar” to “constant and commonplace.”
[For more on how seeing the Earth from space changed everything, read Ahmed Kabil’s 02018 feature on the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 8 “Earthrise” photo.]
One of Dr. Muir-Harmony’s aims in designing the gallery was impressing upon visitors that “this transformation happened rapidly” and is still in progress, pointing to recent advances in fields like satellite-driven Earth observation, navigation, and communications as continued shifts in our perspective. In Dr. Muir-Harmony’s view, “space technology is infrastructure,” and our efforts in space must be understood in terms of their effects on human well-being.
With that in mind, bringing in a long-term perspective made perfect sense to the exhibit’s curatorial team. The two Long Now artifacts in the collection “encourage visitors to think about the future,” and prompt them to consider “the risks and possibilities of interconnection” over a longer time frame.
Chief among the risks and possibilities identified by Dr. Muir-Harmony is the “exponential growth” of satellites and satellite debris in low-earth orbit — a development over the past decade or so that has enabled access to satellite-based internet nearly anywhere on Earth, including the furthest reaches of the poles. Yet the ever-growing nexus of satellites above us also raises key questions about national security and personal privacy that remain unanswered. As Dr. Muir-Harmony notes, the gallery’s priority is to get visitors to “step back and think about the long-term perspective [and] how we want to shape the future” in the face of technological advancements.
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