Recently I watched a video featuring astronauts. They were trying to express what it feels like to see 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. Taxes and mortgages, sins and mistakes, secrets and shame. There, gone, there, gone.
I would never want to do that, hurtle off the planet and soar into space—it is simply too big, too empty; the average distance between stars is 20 million million miles. I am riveted by my own backyard and the wonders that await me each day. Butterflies emerging from hardened husks, lime green katydids the size of staples, 20 lb watermelons sprung from half-inch seeds.
Nor do I have the mettle required to pit my warm beating heart against the frigid reaches of space. 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.
My father was a NASA scientist who developed several of the tests performed on would-be astronauts to determine their space-worthiness. In particular, he studied the effects of weightlessness on the human body. In 1960, he spent a week floating in a water tank in a rubber suit. Urine tests showed that his body began steadily disposing unneeded muscle and bone. The research provided proof that astronauts on long-duration flights would need to engage in rigorous exercise to prevent physical decline.
The International Space Station is a technological masterpiece, the pinnacle of human enterprise, a status at odds with its lifestyle limitations. There’s not much glamour in strapping oneself into a bunk each night or squeezing dinner from a plastic pouch. Beyond these character-building exercises, there is the physical toll. Without gravity, fluids in the body travel upward, resulting in headaches, nausea and a constant feeling of pressure. The heart, veins and arteries weaken, as do the muscles—crew members need to exercise at least two hours a day on specialized equipment or lose what they may not regain, like bone. High carbon dioxide levels, needed for optimal equipment performance, make the eyes burn. Bathroom breaks are probably the most challenging aspect of cosmic living. Astronauts must hover over a $19 million potty—it resembles a wet-vac—and, in zero gravity, send their feces into a tiny lining at the top; accidents are not uncommon. Since space toilets are not emptied every day, someone is obliged to don a rubber glove as needed and pack the poo down. When critical mass is achieved, the problem is shot into space and burns up in the earth’s atmosphere.
While viewing the earth from an alien’s perspective may be the highest privilege we can accord our own, I imagine there must be a fair amount of grumpiness and boredom inside the space station. With no doors to close, privacy is out of the question. There are no spouses to hug, no children to adore, no puppies to pet or flowers to plant. There is only that haunting view of planet Earth and a hamster wheel of daily tasks: cleaning filters, checking support systems, updating equipment, collecting data—on themselves and the endless darkness around them.
More than one astronaut on the program I watched mentioned 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 startlingly 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 trillions. That this particular star happens to keep us alive, held in breathtaking orbit, at precisely the right distance and angle to maintain myriad forms of life, is an imponderable bit of luck.
The cosmos stretches in all directions, swallowing space and time. To be 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 said. It is an immediate and ecstatic revelation: We Are One.
Despite their training and valor, astronauts must feel relief, at least at first, when they are safely back on terra firma. Above them is the sky and sun and moon, each where it should be. And here is that old friend gravity keeping everything in place. When they walk, I wonder if they feel the pull of the earth. Does the weight of their duffle bags surprise them? Some of these travelers have been aloft several months—do their wrinkles appear all at once? Did their skin age more or less? What are they most ravenous for—sex? A grilled steak? A queen-size bed?
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? Do they miss that lightness of being when they were floating free of earthly burdens? When they gaze into the night sky, does it beckon them back? Having seen the big picture, are they lonely among us?