Fall in love with Earth all over again. Click on the images to see our planet from space.
Starting in 2007, we’ll be seeing a lot more of the Earth from space. The Chinese are launching their first lunar satellite this year, with the US, India, and Japan following in 2008. The missions will investigate the moon for possible future human landings, but we’ll still take the opportunity to send back new images of Earth against the infinite black.
Postcards from low-Earth orbit will come soon too, if Richard Branson and others finally succeed in breaking down the price barriers that have kept all but the wealthiest handful of civilians grounded. As plans proceed for a manned return to the Moon and eventual voyages to Mars, the sight of Earth—relayed by our reconnaissance craft and astronauts, both professional and fare-paying—will be more widely experienced than ever.
For those who have already experienced it, the beauty of the planet has been an epiphany, eliciting deep concern for Earth’s health, a visceral understanding of human “oneness,” and clarity about the interconnectedness of things. Unlike those of us here among the trees, they have seen the forest.
Twenty years ago in his seminal book on the philosophy and psychology of human space exploration, The Overview Effect, Frank White suggested that every transcendence beyond a known realm provides an overview of that realm, and deep insight into how it fits into the greater picture. A child leaves the womb, his hometown, his country, each time gaining greater understanding, altering his actions to some degree based on these new experiences and insights, and perhaps becoming a transforming element of society around him. Leaving the planet is a quantum transition in context for earthly life.
The Space Shuttle astronaut and British native Piers Sellers, recently back from the “return to flight” safety and repair mission on board Discovery, described the view of our planet as “mind shattering.”
“It’s sensory overload. So much light, so much beauty, a sight that’s so completely alien to anything we’ve experienced. I guess it’s a bit like being a savage from the rainforest, suddenly stuck into Notre Dame.” On Sellers’s six career space walks (he’s been up twice), he’s also viewed the planet from outside the Shuttle. “You’re in the environment, as opposed to looking at [it] through a window, which is like watching it on TV,” he says. “It’s not like looking at the fish—you’re swimming with the fish.”
After he got his “head screwed on straight,” as Sellers said about his first time out of the airlock, the observations started coming. Of the Earth’s features, he said, “The thing that’s a surprise is that they look curved. Everything is pasted to this big sphere, so that you become very aware that it’s, you know, a huge ball.” Other space travelers know how unremarkable this revelation sounds. As Apollo astronaut Gene Cernan joked to Mission Control in 1972 from 30,000 miles out, “I know we’re not the first to discover this, but we’d like to confirm, from the crew of Apollo 17, that the world is round.” There’s knowing, it seems, and then there’s knowing.
As a biometeorologist, Sellers has studied the interaction between atmosphere and biosphere in Brazil, Canada, and Niger, and is particularly attuned to another oft-cited observation. “The biggest impression I got from my first space flight, reinforced this time,” he said, “is that the Earth’s atmosphere is incredibly thin; about 25 miles’ worth and that’s all you’ve got…a thin gas layer…and it’s what we rely on to live. So that part of the system is vulnerable to abuse.”
As Al Gore reminded us in the opening scenes of his recent film An Inconvenient Truth, photos taken by Apollo 8 in the 1960s gave humans their first glimpse of the whole Earth. Many consider the Apollo images invaluable to the ecological movement’s jumpstart in the 1970s. Shuttle astronaut Joe Allen says in an interview with White, “You wouldn’t have gotten a penny for [the] EPA without those pictures from orbit.”
That international borders aren’t visible from space is, by now, a cliché among astronauts. Sellers doesn’t think that the perspective from low-Earth orbit would necessarily change someone’s political outlook, but Apollo astronaut Michael Collins suggested that the view from 100,000 miles out might.
From the ISS, 230 miles up, the Earth is still familiar enough to identify with. Even for spacewalkers, the Earth fills almost the entire field of view. But for the 24 humans who have gone to the moon (12 of them have walked on the surface), the ability to see a tiny living Earth against the vastness of a hostile universe has had an even more profound effect. Their vision of and connection to humankind as a whole is perhaps best illustrated by Apollo astronaut “Rusty” Schweickart’s comment: “You realize that…on that little blue and white thing, is everything that means anything to you—all of history and music and poetry and art…on that little spot you can cover with your thumb…and you realize…that there’s something new there, that the relationship is no longer what it once was.”
According to White, each space traveler adds his or her own elements to society’s awareness of itself and is part of the “overview system” that guides the future evolution of humanity. Some may focus on politics, and others, like Piers Sellers, simply marvel at the natural experience. “I guess it makes me more personally fond of the planet,” he says. “Life on Earth and the Earth itself, you know, we grew up together. We fit each other perfectly.” His work in biometeorology and then on the construction of the ISS is a necessary part of the evolution of humankind, which needs stable platforms from which to make its next leap. And while the potential is infinite—for the ultimate overview is of the universe itself—it is the actions of pioneering individuals that drive us forward, discovery by discovery, view by view.
Originally published January 30, 2007