When astronauts return from space, what they talk about isn’t the brute force of the rocket launch or the exhilaration of zero gravity. It’s the view. And it’s mankind’s rarest view of all, Earth from afar.
Only two dozen men – those who journeyed to the moon – have seen the full Earth view. Most space travellers, in low orbit, see only a piece of the planet – a lesser but still impressive glimpse. They have seen the curvature of Earth, its magnificent beauty, its fragility, and its lack of borders.
The first full view of Earth came from the moon-bound Apollo 8 during the waning days of a chaotic 1968. Apollo 8 astronaut Bill Anders put it in perspective in a documentary: “We came all this way to explore the moon, and the most important thing is that we discovered the Earth.”
For Earth Day this year – at a time when perhaps some perspective is needed – the Associated Press asked space travellers to recall what it’s like to see Earth from above:
“It was the only colour we could see in the universe. … We’re living on a tiny little dust mote in left field on a rather insignificant galaxy. And basically this is it for humans. It strikes me that it’s a shame that we’re squabbling over oil and borders.” – Bill Anders, Apollo 8, whose photos of Earth became famous.
“It gives you in an instant, just at a position 240,000 miles away from it, (an idea of) how insignificant we are, how fragile we are, and how fortunate we are to have a body that will allow us to enjoy the sky and the trees and the water … It’s something that many people take for granted when they’re born and they grow up within the environment. But they don’t realise what they have. And I didn’t till I left it.” – Jim Lovell, Apollo 8 and 13.
“The sheer beauty of it just brought tears to my eyes. If people can see Earth from up here, see it without those borders, see it without any differences in race or religion, they would have a completely different perspective. Because when you see it from that angle, you cannot think of your home or your country. All you can see is one Earth.…” – Anousheh Ansari, Iranian American space tourist who flew last year to the international space station.
“…From up there, it looks finite and it looks fragile and it really looks like just a tiny little place on which we live in a vast expanse of space. It gave me the feeling of really wanting us all to take care of the Earth. I got more of a sense of Earth as home, a place where we live. And of course you want to take care of your home. You want it clean. You want it safe.” – Winston Scott, two-time shuttle astronaut who wrote a book, “Reflections From Earth Orbit”.
“You change because you see your life differently than when you live on the surface every day… We are so involved in our own little lives and our own little concerns and problems. I don’t think the average person realises the global environment that we really live in. I certainly am more aware of how fragile our Earth is, and, frankly, I think that I care more about our Earth because of the experiences I’ve had travelling in space.” – Eileen Collins, first female space shuttle commander.
“You can see what a small little atmosphere is protecting us. You realise there’s not much protecting this planet, particularly when you see the view from the side. That’s something I’d like to share with everybody so people would realise we need to protect it.” – Sunita Williams, who has been living on the international space station since December 11, 2006.
“I left Earth three times. I found no place else to go. Please take care of Spaceship Earth.” – Wally Schirra, who flew around Earth on Mercury, Gemini and Apollo missions in the 1960s.