a memento mori of progress halted and technology foiled


At some point in their twenty-one-hour sojourn in the Sea of Tranquility, Buzz Aldrin and Neil Armstrong turned from snapping pictures and gathering moon rocks to gaze up at the swirling blue marble of Earth, shining in the blackness a quarter million miles away. A bit below the Equator a cloudless patch revealed the reddish-brown pattern of a mountain range—the Andes, presumably—and nestled in their midst, winking like a coin in a well, was a brilliant patch of white. Armstrong at first mistook the spot for a glacier, but later realized that what he had seen was the last remnant of a vast inland sea, evaporated away over millennia into the world’s largest salt flat, the Salar de Uyuni, spreading at twelve thousand feet along the edge of the Bolivian Altiplano. Today, the Salar’s almost perfect flatness is used by NASA to calibrate the orbital altitude of earth observation satellites, making them precise enough to measure the retreat of polar ice to within an inch. Years after the moon landing, Armstrong was said to have visited Bolivia, and made his way to the Salar, to visit the same place he had pinpointed from the Moon. True or not, this is a story that tour guides in Uyuni love to tell.

more from our friend Matt Power at VQR here.