On November 15, Planet Labs, an imaging company based in San Francisco, released a photograph of the Statue of Unity through its Twitter account. Within hours, Indian media and social networks filled with rhapsodies about the figure of Sardar Patel being large enough to be visible from space. One article stated, “This puts the statue in an elite league of man-made structures, which can be seen from above the Earth, like the Palm Islands along the coast of Dubai and the Great Pyramids of Giza.” Another journalist wrote, “The 182-metre structure has now earned a rare bragging right: It is visible from space.” To me, the image from Planet Labs merely demonstrated the need for decent landscaping in the area. Plonking a ginormous sculpture on an ugly platform might be good enough to attract millions of Indian tourists, but it would be nice to dress up the surroundings a little. The photograph also made apparent the oddest aspects of the site’s design, which is that a full frontal view of Vallabhbhai Patel is to be had only from across the river rather than from the approach path.
Visibility from space
The “visible from space” boast has been around for a long time. When I was in school, a regular question in quizzes was, “Which is the only man made structure you can see from space/from the moon?” The expected answer was the Great Wall of China. When China’s first astronaut Yang Liwei returned to earth, he was pestered by Chinese citizens seeking confirmation of their Wall’s unique status. His reply was disappointing, if honest: He had not spotted the historic barrier in the brief time he spent in outer space.
Whether he could have seen it at all remains an open question. A wall, no matter how long, will be less prominent from on high than a site that is round or square. Among the largest such human interventions are open pit mines, hardly the most inspiring sights imaginable, but more likely to be visible to an astronaut’s naked eye than a long ribbon of mud, brick and stone. Men and women posted for months on the International Space Station, who spend a long time staring at the mother planet, have reported seeing a number of glories of human effort, though they were usually aided by binoculars.
The moon is another matter. The International Space Station orbits our planet at a mean altitude of around 400 km, while earth’s natural satellite is a thousand times further away. It is the difference between a hundred-metre dash and trudging from Ahmedabad to Baroda. A person on the lunar surface will be hard pressed to see any walls, statues or even open pit mines, whether with the naked eye or binoculars.
The satellite that took the image of the Statue of Unity employed equipment far more sophisticated and powerful than binoculars. Which is why taking the photograph as a marker of national pride is ridiculous. Those satellites see everything, and photograph everything. They can see the building I live in, the road in front of it, and the cars parked on that road. The Statue of Unity is in no “elite league” that gives it “a rare bragging right”. It is just one more object among millions visible to the many eyes that now spy on us from the sky.
Those eyes are all machine eyes, looking at what controllers on earth want them to look at. The few humans who have flown beyond the atmosphere looked at what they wanted to look at, and beheld a world without national boundaries. Having gazed at an undivided earth, many grew preoccupied with the planet’s natural beauty, with its health as a whole. Think about it: Would you, viewing India from a spacecraft, be more likely to marvel at the river Narmada or a tall statue on its banks?
The exploration of space was driven by nationalistic imperatives, but its most famous personalities transcended nationalism through the sheer experience of distance from their place of birth. That is the paradox at the heart of space exploration. It provides pride in human achievement, or even national achievement, while also filling us with humility at our tininess. In coverage of the Statue of Unity, and in our cultural discourse more generally, I sense we are losing that balance between pride and humility. I fear we risk becoming a nation of big statues and small minds.