Recently I watched a video featuring astronauts. They were trying to express what it feels like to see the earth from space. One astronaut was fascinated by the way he could raise a thumb to the window and block out his home—the oceans, the rain forests, the Sahara, the Alps. Seven continents and eight billion people: there, gone, there again.
I could never do that, hurtle off the planet and soar into space. I can trust my body to freeways, airplanes, certain medications and surgeries, but no way am I leaving the atmosphere. I thought it was odd that none of the astronauts used the word “panic” in describing the sight of earth through a porthole. A single glitch and their space ship could become space junk. They must not reflect on that; their minds, like their bodies, must be in excellent shape.
What they did mention was how organic the world appears, a blue ball of ever-flowing energy, with swirling storms and flashes of lightning. They spoke of the planet’s stunning fragility, the “paper thin” layer of atmosphere barely hugging the surface—our only protection from cosmic destruction. There was footage of the damage we’ve done, the scars and erosions and clear-cutting so evident from the clarity of space.
Out there, the sun is not the sun as we know it, not the dependable orb that gloriously rises and sets, but just a star, one of billions. That this particular star happens to keep us alive, held in breathtaking orbit, is an imponderable bit of luck.
The cosmos stretches in all directions, swallowing space and time. To be out there, in that black forever, is to see infinity. And to see the earth from this other-worldly place is to see its plight. There it somehow is, the blue planet, our only home in the universe. One of the astronauts used the term “Spaceship Earth,” because that is how he sees us, a vast crew with one destiny. Scientists call this perception of oneness the “overview effect.” It does not dawn on you gradually, the astronauts attest. It is an immediate and ecstatic revelation: We Are One. And unless we start acting like it, unless we pull together and work as one, we will wreck the only ship we have.
When these travelers return from space, the transition cannot be easy. Finding themselves back on earth, their first reaction is probably relief—the shuttle held together. They must stumble around a bit, trying to get their land legs back after floating in a vacuum. Gravity must feel like a weight. Some astronauts spend half a year above the earth; what happens to their bodies when they land—do six months of wrinkles appear all at once? Do they feel the pull of the planet when they walk?
But what I really want to know is how they manage later, when they are fully restored and back in their Nikes and Nissans. What do they think of war, the stock market, hair loss, teeth whitening, reality TV? When they look up into the night sky, are they homesick? And when they walk among us, having seen the big picture, are they lonely?