By Donella Meadows
–October 20, 1988–
One of my objections to the manned space program has always been that the cosmonauts and astronauts are so terse and technocratic. They say “Roger” and use plenty of technical jargon, but they never talk about what I want to hear. What’s it really like up there? How is it to be so detached from, distant from the home planet?
To my knowledge, only one astronaut, Rusty Schweikert, ever let loose a stream of emotion, a truly human communication about the experience of being in space. His outburst has become a classic. Here’s part of it:
“Up there you go around every hour and a half, time after time after time. You go around across North Africa and out over the Indian Ocean, and Ceylon off to the side, Burma, Southeast Asia, and up across that monstrous Pacific Ocean — you’ve never realized how big that is before.
“And you finally come up across the coast of California and look for those friendly things: Los Angeles, and Phoenix, and there’s Houston, there’s home. You identify with Houston, and Phoenix and New Orleans. And the next thing is you’re identifying with North Africa. When you go around in an hour and a half you begin to recognize that your identity is with that whole thing.
“You look down there and you can’t imagine how many borders and boundaries you crossed. At the Mideast you know there are hundreds of people killing each other over some imaginary line that you can’t see. From where you see it, the thing is a whole, and it’s so beautiful. And you wish you could take one from each side in hand and say, “Look at it from this perspective. Look at that. What’s important?”
As far as I’m concerned, Rusty’s description is worth the entire cost of the space program. But happily, it’s not the only such description. The travelers in space of all nations have been more articulate than I had known. Their reflections are now collected in a new book The Home Planet, accompanied by spectacular photographs taken from space. The book is published jointly by Addison Wesley in the U.S. and Mir Publishers in the USSR. Reading it gives one a breathtaking sense of — well — perspective.
Here’s a sampling.
Sigmund Jahn, East Germany — “Before I flew I was already aware of how small and vulnerable our planet is; but only when I saw it from space, in all its ineffable beauty and fragility, did I realize that humankind’s most urgent task is to cherish and preserve it for future generations.”
Yuri Artyukhin, USSR — “It isn’t important in which sea or lake you observe a slick of pollution, or in the forests of which country a fire breaks out, or on which continent a hurricane arises. You are standing guard over the whole of our Earth.”
Aleksandr Aleksandrov, USSR — “We were flying over America and suddenly I saw snow, the first snow we ever saw from orbit. I have never visited America, but I imagined that the arrival of autumn and winter is the same there as in other places, and the process of getting ready for them is the same. And then it struck me that we are all chidren of our Earth. It does not matter what country you look at. We are all Earth’s children.”
Rodolfo Neri-Vela, Mexico — “From space I see myself as one more person among the millions and millions who lived, live, and will live on Earth. Inevitably, this makes one think about our existence and the way in which we should live to enjoy, to share, our short lives as fully as possible.”
Vladimir Solovyov, USSR — “As the journey neared its end, I would, when something would go wrong, press my face to the window of my darkened cubicle. I would look at the Earth gliding underneath me and think, How everlasting all this is. After I am gone, and my children, and my grandchildren, our Earth will still be gliding through the eternity of space in its measured, unhurried way.”
Edgar Mitchell, USA — “On the return trip home, gazing through 240,000 miles of space toward the stars and the planet from which I had come, I suddenly experienced the universe as intelligent, loving, harmonious. It occurred when looking at Earth and seeing this blue-and-white planet floating there … seeing that there was a purposefulness of flow, of energy, of time, of space in the cosmos — that it was beyond man’s rational ability to understand, that suddenly there was a nonrational way of understanding that had been beyond my previous experience.”
Andriyan Nikolayev, USSR — “A strange feeling of complete, almost solemn contentment suddenly overcame me when the descent module landed, rocked, and stilled. The weather was foul, but I smelled Earth, unspeakably sweet and intoxicating. And wind. How utterly delightful; wind after long days in space.”
Rusty Schweikert summed it up for all of them, and all of us. “There’s a difference now, there’s a difference in that relationship between you and that planet, because you’ve had that kind of experience. I’ve used the word YOU because it’s not me, it’s not Dave Scott, it’s not Dick Gordon, Pete Conrad, John Glenn, it’s you, it’s us, it’s we, it’s life. IT’S had that experience. And it’s not just MY problem to integrate, it’s not my challenge to integrate, my joy to integrate — it’s yours, it’s everybody’s.
Copyright Sustainability Institute 1988