Episode 1: An Astronaut’s View of Earth
9 News Australia Reporter: “…Cornonavirus emergency. The World Health Organization has declared cornonavirus a global pandemic…”
[00:07] Narrator: This has been a tough year for the people of planet Earth.
BBC Reporter: …so anybody coming back from Wuhan, when we returned, needed to quarantine…
NPR Reporter: …the viruses circulating today look remarkably similar to the ones that appeared in China late last year…
CBS Reporter: …thousands broke the lock-down rules to deliver a message of solidarity with American protestors…
Protestor: Black Lives Matter!
May 28, 2020 New York City protest: I can’t breathe! I can’t breathe!
[00:34] Narrator: As difficult as the events of 2020 have been, in the United States they have echoes in the recent past. In 1968, there were large-scale protests against racial injustice, tumultuous issues were debated during a tightly-contested Presidential election, and all the while, a global pandemic was blazing through the populace. One event in 1968 stands apart from our current year, however.
NASA Public Affairs Officer: This is Apollo Saturn Launch Control at T minus 21 minutes and counting and we are Go for the Apollo 8 mission at this time. We appear to have a beautiful morning for the flight to the Moon…
[1:13] Narrator: In December 1968, for the first time in history, humans escaped the gravity of Earth and traveled to another world.
Narrator: The mission was Apollo 8, and the goal of astronauts Bill Anders, Frank Borman and Jim Lovell was to fly to the Moon, and orbit around it several times before returning to Earth. Before this voyage, astronauts had only traveled about 850 miles, or 1600 kilometers, above Earth’s surface. But if we could break free of our planet’s gravity and travel all the way to the Moon and back, this would then pave the way for the ultimate goal of landing on the Moon and walking on its surface.
Apollo 11: Ok, engines stopped.
[2:01] Narrator: As we all know, in the summer of 1969, Apollo 11’s Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin did land and walk on the Moon.
Neil Armstrong: Tranquility Base here. The Eagle has landed.
[2:14] Narrator: Apollo 11’s success led to more Apollo lunar missions, ending with Apollo 17 in 1972. But in 1968, all of that was the unknown future. Different aspects of the technology to get us to the Moon first had to be tested out, step-by-careful-step.
Part of that testing included a series of unmanned missions, starting in 1958, for robots to travel to the Moon and land on the surface. In this part of the Space Race between the US and USSR, the Soviets had their Luna and Zond missions, while the US had Rangers and Surveyors. But even after a decade of testing and engineering improvements, even after a series of successful human missions in Earth orbit, the launch of Apollo 8 was in some regards a leap of faith.
Reality sometimes doesn’t line up as neatly as a mathematical equation on a page. As well-built as the machines were, as solid the scientific principles, as much as they trained and prepared, humans had never traveled this far before. If anything went wrong, the Apollo 8 astronauts could be lost in space forever.
NASA Public Affairs Officer: We have ignition sequence start. The engines are armed. 4, 3, 2, 1, 0. We have commit, we have…
Frank Borman: Lift off. The clock is running.
Mike Collins: Roger. Clock.
NASA Public Affairs Officer: …we have lift-off, lift-off at 7:51 a.m. Eastern Standard Time.
[3:47] Narrator: After the Apollo 8 mission launched from Earth, it took 68 hours – or nearly 3 days -- to travel the roughly 250,000 miles, or 400,000 kilometers, to the Moon. Once there, they spent the next 20 hours circling the Moon. The men in that spacecraft were the first to ever gaze upon its grey cratered surface up-close, without the aid of a telescope.
CapCom Jerry Carr: Apollo 8, Houston. What does the ole Moon look like from 60 miles? Over.
Jim Lovell: Okay, Houston. The Moon is essentially grey, no color; looks like plaster of Paris or sort of a greyish beach sand. We can see quite a bit of detail. The Sea of Fertility…
[4:39] Narrator: Due to the position of the spacecraft and the limited visibility from the small windows, the astronauts couldn’t see Earth during their first three orbits. But after they adjusted the orientation of the spacecraft in their fourth lunar orbit, they saw our planet coming up like a sunrise over the horizon.
Bill Anders: Oh, my God! Look at that picture over there! Here's the Earth coming up. Wow, is that pretty!
Frank Borman: Hey, don't take that, it's not scheduled. (Chuckle.)
[5:08] Narrator: The astronauts rushed to take photos of the spectacle, first in black and white, and then in color.
Bill Anders: Hand me that roll of color quick, will you...
Jim Lovell: Oh man, that's great!
Bill Anders: ...Hurry. Quick.
[5:20] Narrator: The astronauts were trying to take photos through small fogged-up windows, while the spacecraft was zooming along and also rotating slowly, changing which window the Earth could be seen from. Despite these challenges, they were able to capture their unique view of our planet.
Jim Lovell: Bill, I got it framed, it's very clear right here! You got it?
Bill Anders: Yep.
Frank Borman: Well, take several of them.
Jim Lovell: Take several of them! Here, give it to me.
Bill Anders: Wait a minute, let's get the right setting, here now; just calm down. Calm down, Lovell.
Jim Lovell: Well, I got it ri - Oh, that's a beautiful shot.
[5:52] Narrator: In this now-iconic “Earthrise” photo, our planet is a deep rich blue, with hints of pinkish-brown continents, all swirled over with clouds of white. We look lovely but fragile, hanging like a bright ornament in the vast black void of space, while the grey pockmarked lunar landscape frames the foreground. The contrast between the two worlds – lively, colorful Earth; dead, dull Moon -- is striking.
It was the perfect image for the growing environmental movement. The Apollo 8 Earthrise photo made us see just how much we had to lose, and compelled us to not take our world for granted. By going to the Moon, we rediscovered Earth.
The Earthrise photo was snapped on Christmas Eve, and the astronauts, deeply moved by their heavenly view of our planet, chose to read a passage from the King James Bible in their Christmas message. The passage was from Genesis, about the creation of Earth. Each of the astronauts read part of the passage in turn, ending with Frank Borman.
[7:03] Borman: "And God said, Let the waters under the heavens be gathered together unto one place, and let the dry land appear: and it was so. And God called the dry land Earth; and the gathering together of the waters called he Seas: and God saw that it was good. And from the crew of Apollo 8, we close with good night, good luck, a Merry Christmas, and God bless all of you - all of you on the good Earth."
[8:10] Narrator: Welcome to “On a Mission,” a podcast of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. I’m Leslie Mullen, a science journalist based at JPL. In this third season of the podcast, we’re going to explore one of the most vibrant, amazing planets in the solar system: our home planet Earth.
When most people think of NASA, what usually comes to mind are astronauts, stars and galaxies, or distant planets like Mars, Jupiter and Saturn. But NASA also studies Earth. In fact, NASA has more missions studying our world than any other planet in the solar system.
Satellites circle Earth every day, keeping track of the quality of the air, the dance of wind, the flows of water and ice. NASA scientists visit our planet’s most extreme locations: from the deepest seas to the highest altitudes, from jungles to deserts to icy poles. Some of these missions help us build instruments designed for other worlds, like rovers that drive the deserts of Mars, or robot drills for icy moons like Enceladus and Europa. But more often, this research helps us better understand our own world.
[9:23] Even though this is the planet we all live on, and should know like the back of our hand, in many ways Earth is still a mystery. We need to become more attuned to its elemental cycles of air and water and rock and fire.
One thing that’s clear is Earth is a place of constant change. Volcanoes erupt rivers of lava and create new land, oceans pound against shorelines, wearing them away. Earthquakes tremble, lightning strikes, storms rage. Ancient rocks reveal histories from deep time that are alien to our experience. In this season, we’ll go to the ends of the Earth with scientists on missions to explore the many faces and moods of our fierce and powerful planet.
This is season 3, episode 1: An Astronaut’s View of Earth.
NASA Astronaut during ISS spacewalk: I got the US Lab behind me, that’s why I could go no further port. Ah, I think I’m ready, I may need to work on body position, but give me the settings…
[10:27] Narrator: Astronauts on the International Space Station have one of the best views of Earth. The length of an American football field, the Space Station is a laboratory and habitat that flies 250 miles above our heads and orbits the planet 16 times a day. If you look online you can find video tours of the Station provided by astronauts, like this one by Cady Coleman:
Cady Coleman: One of my favorite places on the Space Station is our Cupola. It is amazing up here. Windows on all sides.
Narrator: The Cupola is a dome of six side windows and a larger top window, where Earth fills every frame like a painting.
Cady Coleman: Right now we happen to be over ocean, which happens quite a bit. But even the ocean looks different, at different times of day…”
[11:23] Narrator: Astronauts live on the Space Station for half a year or longer these days, giving them many opportunities to enjoy the view. The Space Shuttles had windows in the front cockpit area, but Shuttle trips were short, lasting less than two weeks.
Tracy Caldwell Dyson’s first trip to space was in 2007, on the Space Shuttle Endeavour, and she followed that up in 2010 with a nearly 6-month stay on the Space Station.
Tracy Caldwell Dyson: The Shuttle with its forward windows was the closest thing we had prior to that to a Cupola. But even then, because of the orientation of the vehicles with respect to the trajectory and the way that the shuttle docks, your view is quite limited. But the Cupola, not just being the bay window, not just having seven windows in a space, but the location of it. And then the orientation of the Space Station where we are for the most part usually belly down, and the Cupola is pointing right at the Earth. And the way that it’s shaped you see all Earth, but then you can see space in the area around the base of it. The vantage point is so perfect for looking at the Earth.
I think that as hard as it is to provide windows in a pressurized vehicle in the vacuum of space --I totally get that -- I just think that because we are humans in space it’s essential for what we’re doing. We’re exploring, we’re observing. It’s vital, and I think it’s changed our ability to even describe the experience.
[12:58] When you’re looking out the windows of the Cupola and you get to see the curvature of the Earth and the blue hue of the atmosphere, and depending on the angle of the Sun, these pearlescent yellows and peaches that form when you’re looking at a body of water, it’s just amazing. In fact, it almost I dare say grieved me to think about, “How in the world am I going to describe this?” There’s no words, there’s no picture I could take to do it justice. There’s no watercolors that I could put on paper to come close to the vividness, the ever-changing picture that I see staring at this planet.
Everything from the colors, to what changes the atmosphere goes through depending on where the Sun angle is, and whether The Moon’s in the view or not, to just how fast we’re going over the surface of it and the way shadows are changing. You could see the same land mass over a period of two weeks and it looks completely different because of that. To then looking at the stars and the blackness. A black that nothing here on Earth ever can replicate. And looking at that magnificent engineering marvel called the Space Station. The whole thing is just – it’s a candy store.
[14:20] Narrator: After the Space Shuttle program ended in 2011, NASA astronauts relied on the Russian Soyuz spacecraft to reach the Space Station. Reid Wiseman flew up on the Soyuz in 2014.
Reid Wiseman: Before I got ready to launch, I had looked at pictures on social media and pictures in NASA archives of the Earth so many times, I actually started to get worried. What if I get up there and it's just like the pictures? I mean, that's going to be weird if that's the thing, where I'm like, “Oh, it looks just like the pictures, I'm ready to go home now.” And then on the Soyuz, when I first got a chance to look out my little window at the Earth, there's something about looking out a round window at the curvature of the Earth that makes it just more pronounced and really makes it have a huge impact. And I just had this feeling like I was way up high looking down and we were over the ocean, and the blues that I saw, it was ridiculous. I had never imagined in my entire life getting to see something that beautiful. It was so foreign for the human mind to look at that, to see that total black of space, to see the Earth highlighted that way, and then I got to see a sunset.
I had one piece of paper, it had a picture of my kids on it, and a few of my flight data file burn times on it. But I just took a pencil and I drew 15 curved lines, and I just wrote, light blue, darker blue, pink, purple, dark purple, dark-dark purple. All the way down to the surface of the Earth, that sunset, because the scale of looking at a Sun refracting through the atmosphere, it blew me away. And no picture captures that. There's no high enough dynamic range of a photo to capture what the human can see.
[15:50] Narrator: Because photos are two dimensional, they also can’t give you a good sense of depth, like what it really looks like to see a tower of clouds stretching far down below you. And only videos or a time-lapse series of photos can reveal our planet’s constant action.
Reid Wiseman: Obviously you see this beautiful planet below you, but everywhere you look, there is the environment doing something crazy. A hurricane, a thunderstorm. We launched in May, and so South America, the tip down there was covered in snow, and by the time we came home, it was all green and Canada was covered in snow. And you could see the leaves changing in the northeast of the U.S. as we went through that October into November. You can see the Earth changing.
The most profound moment I had on Space Station was coming up over Brazil. Going east; we were always going west to east. So we were coming up over Brazil about to go across into the Atlantic Ocean, and looking out on the horizon I saw like -- it looked kind of brown. I'd never seen that really from the Space Station. Instantly what did I think? Human interaction pollution for sure. It's just awful looking. It's terrible. But as we went over the Atlantic, it kind of got thicker and thicker and thicker. It was a sandstorm in the Sahara Desert blowing this huge plume of sand up into the atmosphere, crossing the Atlantic Ocean and coming down in Brazil. So imagine waking up in Brazil and there's this fine layer of dust on your car, and you wipe it off, and you look up at this sky and you're like, “Huh, I don't even know.” That's Sahara Desert that is on your car. I mean that is crazy. If that doesn't change the way you think about the planet, I mean… stand at the top of a 7,000-foot mountain and look down and find a seashell fossil because that used to be on the bottom of the ocean. That kind of changes your perception of the Earth because it is always remapping and reshaping. And it's always remapping and reshaping life as well.
Over my six months in space, getting to look at the Earth, it shows you something different. Every day it shows you that it's alive. It's a being just like we are. We're guests on this planet. It's our mother, it's our father, it's our starship cruising around the Sun in the middle of the solar system. Our planet is so powerful, so alive.
[17:49] Narrator: Reid isn’t the only astronaut who describes Earth as being alive. Nicole Stott flew on both the Shuttle and the Space Station, and racked up 104 days in space.
Nicole Stott: There is not anything on one side of the planet that’s not affecting the other side. One of the most impressive things was watching storm activity moving around the planet. And I remember growing up in Florida, and thinking when there was a thunderstorm, because we'd get a lot of them, okay, there's that storm, and once it was gone, it was gone. It didn't occur to me that it was going somewhere else or had been somewhere else before it got to me. And you cannot deny that -- when you look at a thunderstorm from space, it's like watching neurons firing in a brain. You know, these tentacles of light that are just connecting and traveling. Yeah, it might be starting over Florida, but it's like moving across the ocean to Africa as far as you can see. I mean, I remember floating there just thinking about, “Oh my gosh, everything is connected.” Seeing it that way, it seems alive. And I just remember being in awe of that.
The perspective is one of unity, of realizing that it is one planet. You know, 250 miles is really not that far in the grand scheme of things. But it seems far when you're in space on the Space Station or on the Space Shuttle. And I think the perspective is like a reality check of seeing this thing you thought you knew in a whole new way and realizing that, my gosh, that is a planet and I am farther away from it than I ever likely will be. And I feel like more a part of everyone, everything that's down there than I had when I was right in the middle of it.
[19:40] Narrator: Contrasting with the view of the planet as a unified, connected system are structures and systems we’ve built that create separations. Here’s Reid Wiseman again.
Reid Wiseman: You see borders, especially at night. You see developed countries and countries that are less developed. You can see just by the color of the lights which countries have modernized recently and which countries have not modernized. Oh, those are on LED. Those are old Halogens. You can see dams. You can see combat. Two countries were at war, and you could very easily see missiles being shot. They just looked like little traces of light. You can see all that stuff.
I mean… Why can't we all get along? Why do we need guns? I think every human probably asks those questions. But you can't say, “Let's all get along, and everything should be great.” That's not the way it works, and actually, through some of that conflict comes amazing discoveries that have changed the course of human existence. So it's not always bad.
But when I got selected to be an astronaut, I wanted it all for myself, and I was thinking, “All right, now I hope commercialization doesn't happen.” And then I got to orbit on the Soyuz. And I looked outside, and instantly I thought that was ridiculous because if you could get 7 billion people to go up there and look down, for just even 30 seconds, you would change them, all of them, forever. They wouldn't all come back and be friends. They wouldn't all come back and tear down border walls and things like that. But you would change all of them, and you would change them all for the better, and they would have a different view of the planet.
[21:00] Narrator: Astronauts on the International Space Station come from the U.S., Canada, Japan, the Russian Federation, and the eleven member states of the European Space Agency. The Space Station is a little world in miniature, a life-support system we’ve maintained for over twenty years. Here’s Nicole Stott again.
Nicole Stott: When we look at our life support system here on Earth, it's not just about the air that we breathe or the ocean, the plankton that generate that oxygen for us and the trees that clean the CO2, it's not all about that. It's about every single little microorganism, every single creature, every single plant, and how we manage that all together.
We do it on the Space Station right now. I mean, we are acutely aware every day of how much CO2 is in our air on the Space Station. Because we'll get sick if we don't, you know, we'll get headaches, we'll be irritable -- you don’t want to be irritable on the Space Station; it’s just not good for you. We know how much clean drinking water we have and if it will be necessary to ration that or not. Or will we generate enough new, clean drinking water? Do we have to bring some up from Earth? We operate in a closed loop system that is the closest parallel to what we have down here, naturally put in place for us on this planet. And we need to figure out how to operate it.
[22:20] Narrator: Sometimes astronauts need to leave the relative safety of their spacecraft to perform maintenance or other work. So they put on their spacesuit and helmet, and step out into the void.
Nicole Stott: There is nothing, I don't think, more surreal than putting on your own little spaceship and going outside and doing a spacewalk. And it is very personal. I mean it's a very kind of intimate thing to have this life support system surrounding you that way. And we always go out with a partner, you know, we always have a buddy on our spacewalks. You're not always next to each other so you get time alone. I remember thinking that, coming out, like that the world would just open up around me. And the view for some reason seems bigger than what you have when you're looking through the windows of a spacecraft. But you have to move your whole body, you know, to turn one way or another, because if you turn your head in your spacesuit, all you’re looking at is the side of your spacesuit.
[23:14] Narrator: The technical term for a spacewalk is E-V-A – Extra-Vehicular Activity. You’re not walking in space so much as hanging onto the spacecraft while free-falling around the planet. Over his career, Mike Fossum did seven EVAs.
Mike Fossum: You’d better be a little bit scared. It’s a dangerous place. My first spacewalk, in 2006, senior spacewalker Piers Sellers was with me. And he headed out the hatch first, as he should. I passed out my tether anchor to him. And then he said, “Okay, ready for you.” Like okay, here goes. And I slid out of the airlock feet first. I remember vividly hanging on that rail right there, just like, “Oh boy, wow!” Because I came out and I am looking at the Space Station. It’s shiny, and you could see Earth reflecting off of it, the blues and whites. And I followed my eyes over to the side and there’s our Space Shuttle Discovery dangling on the end there. And I followed that view down. That’s a very disturbing view, looking down about two hundred and forty miles at the Earth going by at seventeen thousand miles an hour, like, “Oh boy!”
I felt my hands grip a little tighter and I looked up to look at Piers and he’s watching me with great amusement. He has a big smile. He gave me a little wink and a nod, says, “You got this Michael.” And I said, “Okay Piers is smiling, we’re going to be okay.” But it looked starkly different from what we trained in in the water.
[24:48] Narrator: Before they launch into space, astronauts train in a giant swimming pool at NASA’s Johnson Space Center. The pool, called the Neutral Buoyancy Laboratory, contains full-scale mock-ups of Space Station modules and payloads, as well as visiting vehicles. The diving suits are weighted down to make it feel like they’re doing a spacewalk, rather than swimming, but the drag caused by water means it’s not a perfect simulation – as the astronauts quickly discover when they do their first spacewalk.
Mike Fossum: I had hundreds of hours in the water at that point, and I had to relearn some of the things how you move around. But did that, so practiced for a few minutes, so it’s, “Okay, we ready to start moving? Okay, let’s take it easy.” And then you just have to not think about where you are. Just concentrate on getting the job done, what’s the big picture.
When moving across the top of modules or parts of the Space Station, I felt fairly comfortable. Now you’re all in microgravity, you’re all traveling at the same speed, there’s no forces pulling you off. But when I was moving along the bottom of the Space Station, I feel like I’m a fly clinging to the ceiling and I have to hold on tight lest I fall away. I never did shake that.
On my very first EVA, I was on the end of the fifty-foot long Space Shuttle arm. We were testing the dynamic stability of this thing. And I was the actuator. So I got out on the end with my feet in a foot plate and I’m making big body swings on purpose, just to get it swaying. And then bending my knees and pulling myself down and springing up with as much vigor as I could to force the pull in a different direction.
And at one point they called me and they said, “Okay Mike, we’re ready for the next step – Three Charlie.” Oh, I was hoping we wouldn’t have time for that one. That meant I had to unclip my boots from the foot plate and go down and adjust one of the settings on the foot plate. And I couldn’t see anything made by human beings at that point, my back was kind of turned to the Station and the Shuttle. And I unclipped and I grabbed the tether and I’m pulling myself back around. And that view, looking down a hundred foot of spindly stick – that was a moment of sheer, stark terror. “Wow!” (laughs) I’m sure the docs saw my heart rate triple.
[27:15] Narrator: Tracy Caldwell Dyson also has vivid memories of her spacewalks.
Tracy Caldwell Dyson: You are your own little satellite. And depending on where you are on the Space Station, you feel more like that than in other spots. You know when you’re stuck to the truss or you’ve got your head in something, not so much, but when you’re riding on the robotic arm… I remember being over this palate that is parallel to the Earth. And I had to be positioned over it, and I felt like I was hang-gliding, because of the speed at which we were going over the surface of the Earth. Or even when you’re hanging off of a platform like that and you look down at your shoes, and then you see the Earth going below. And it’s like, there’s my foot and there’s the planet. (laughs) That’s just wild!
Your head is in a much different game when you’re in that spacesuit out doing a spacewalk. And you’ve got a timeline, you’ve got six-and-a-half scheduled hours to get your jobs done out there. And it’s as highly choreographed as it can be, and there’s no time built in for you to take a gander. But on one of my spacewalks, I had to wait for my partner for something before I did my action. And I was as far out in the truss as I could be. So kind of hanging out there without a lot of structure in my view. And it happened to be just at the end of an orbital night and so the Sun hadn’t yet risen above that horizon. And so I was just kind of hanging out there with not a lot of work to do until they called me. And there comes the Sun.
[28:53] (music: The Beatles: Here Comes the Sun)
And you start to get a hint that the Sun’s coming because – especially if you’re looking at the solar arrays because they go from this shimmery blue to looking like toaster filaments. And they start getting orange and they get brighter and brighter and brighter, and then the Sun comes up and then you just see the Sun shining on the different metals and the different materials that are out there. And then how the Earth itself lights up and features start illuminating. And it just blows you away that there’s nothing between you and it but this visor.
And the Sun is pretty hot, I’ll say that. These metal visors, they’re not just like sun glasses, they’re sun blockers. And you need that. And so you then have these sensations of how hot the Sun is, to how cold it is when the Sun goes down. And so it’s like a symphony of experiences when you’re out there doing a spacewalk.
(music: Here Comes the Sun, performed by the London Symphony Orchestra)
[30:04] Narrator: The “orbital night” Tracy mentioned is the dark, un-sunlit side of Earth. Because astronauts on the Space Station orbit the Earth every 90 minutes, they experience sunrises or sunsets each time they pass the ever-moving, shadowy line between day and night, known as the “terminator”.
(movie clip, “The Terminator”: “I’ll be back.”)
Tracy Caldwell Dyson:
When the terminator is coming, it’s really eerie because you just see this dark shadow coming over and it’s swallowing up the Earth. And if you’re not going over a populated land mass, it’s all water. It’s so black, there’s no sign of a planet down there. The only reason you know that there’s a planet there is for the absence of stars.
Narrator: The “terminator” seems a harsh name for something that’s just the result of Earth’s rotation as it spins around the Sun. You might prefer the more poetic phrase for it: “The Twilight Zone.”
(music: “Twilight Zone” TV show theme song)
[31:03] Tracy Caldwell Dyson:
The orbital night, you can see the universe a little better, and it’s just so vast and infinite. You know, when you look at stars from Earth, you’re looking through an atmosphere, a rather thick one relative to our body size. And so the stars twinkle, and you’re looking at them in a 2D plane. And though you see brighter stars than others, you really don’t sense any depth between them.
But when you’re above the atmosphere, the stars don’t twinkle. They are pretty solid bright. And so you’re blinking more than they’re twinkling, right? So you’re first surprised at how sharp and steady they are. They’re no larger than they are at two hundred and fifty miles (laughs), but they are very solid. And then, as you gaze even deeper and you kind of let your focal point change, it’s much like that graphic art where, once you allow your focal point to go beyond the plane of the paper, this image jumps out at you. Same thing to me and the stars is that I could all of a sudden detect depth. Now I couldn’t tell you how much, but it’s light years, right? And it’s like, “Whoa, I can somehow tell that that star is closer than that star.” And that was something that knocked my socks off. And it was one of the most profound things; I’ve never ever forgotten about that view.
[32:24] Narrator: Those views of Earth and space can set astronauts adrift, just like their new ability to float in mid-air. The weightlessness of the reduced gravity does a lot of strange things to your body. For instance, fluids build up in your head and upper torso, because gravity is no longer pulling them down towards your legs and feet. Reid Wiseman describes some of the other effects.
Reid Wiseman: Being weightless, the first few days is horrible. I mean it's really neat to see something floating in front of you. It's really horrible to feel like you're going to throw up all the time. It's horrible to think I have to drink that because I know I'm dehydrated but just the thought of putting that fluid into a system that is floating now is just horrible. Running on the treadmill, horrible the first two or three times. Like food should not be bouncing off the top of your stomach. It should be in the bottom of your stomach. You shouldn't feel those sensations. Gas inside your body doesn't get separated from the solid so there's little gas particles trapped all in your intestinal tract. So you're passing gas all the time. I mean these are all just weird things.
And so in weightlessness, your body is changing all the time. You know the callouses on your heels, those are going away after two or three months, and it's crazy to sit there and pull these huge callouses that you've been building up your whole life off your heels. Your body doesn't need them anymore. It's getting rid of them. It's getting rid of muscles, it's getting rid of bone, it's getting rid of blood that it doesn't need. So it's changing that entire time.
My very first night, I woke up in the middle of the night, and I wasn't feeling great. And I had to use the restroom. And I wasn't good at floating, and I just very slowly came out of my bedroom, and I just floated through the U.S. lab. And you could hear all the fans running and the little LEDs are on from all the little science projects that are running, and I'm moving so slow and I'm not hitting anything, and I just burst out laughing, and I couldn't stop.
[34:04] Narrator: When you float rather than walk, when your notions of “up” and “down” suddenly become relative, you need to re-learn how to move and orient yourself. Astronauts often laugh about how they once dropped something and reached down to grab it, only to see it drift off in an unexpected direction. Things you took for granted have to be reconsidered. Space modifies both the body and mind.
This primes the mind to open up in other ways. One of the biggest mental shifts for astronauts is their perception of life on Earth. Here’s Nick Hague, who spent over six months on the Space Station in 2019.
Nick Hague: I can distinctly remember waking up one morning, couldn't sleep for whatever reason. It's like four in the morning. I was like, “Hey, we're in a night pass. I'm going to go down to the Cupola and I'm going to drink my coffee and stare at the stars.” And there's just so many. And the longer you stare, the more you see. You start with the big bright ones until your eyes start to adjust to the dark. And then they open up a little more, and you see all these smaller little stars. And then once they open up enough, then you can start to see all of this cloudy structure and you realize that, the depth of what's out there, I can only see that tip of the iceberg. So it definitely puts you in your place in terms of, how big am I, how big are we collectively as humanity sitting here on Earth. We're living on this little Island in the middle of nothing.
[35:39] And as we would fly over different areas and you saw the beauty of the landscape, you know, the mountains and the deserts, and you start to think of how they were formed for thousands and millions of years. You realize just how special the place we are is. And when you see the impacts that we can have on the land, for me, it gave me this overwhelming sense of stewardship and just wanting to come back and take care of the planet a little bit better than I had before. And help convey the message that we're on this place together.
Being able to look at the Earth from that vantage point and simultaneously see myself as part of something so small in the great Cosmos, but also part of something so large as the Earth that's below me, made me realize at a deeper level that, you know, I may be one small individual that's part of humanity, but I can still have an impact. And I can have a large impact but still be something very small. And so that balance of perspective has given me a sense of empowerment that I hope that everybody could share in, in terms of, you can make a difference.
[37:09] Narrator: You don’t have to go to space to see the world this way. Everyone can have an astronaut’s perspective. Here’s Nicole Stott.
Nicole Stott: I like to think of how people felt when they saw that Earthrise image from 1968 with the Apollo 8 crew. I mean that was life-changing for humanity, really. And I want us to get back to that. This view of Earth is kind of ubiquitous these days. We open up Google Earth and the first thing you see is a planet, which I think is awesome, because everybody has to look at and say, “Oh, there's a planet,” and I have to zoom in to wherever it is I want to find or that I'm looking for on that planet. You can make a connection to it that way.
I just had the 10th anniversary of my first space flight, which I can hardly believe. And I think you start to reflect a little bit differently on what you experienced. For me, that really has come down to three simple facts: that we live on a planet, that we're all Earthlings, and that really and truly the only border that matters is this thin blue line of atmosphere that blankets and protects us all.
And I think those three things for me have become not just a description of what I experienced in space, but they've become integral to my life. There is not a day goes by that I'm not thinking about those three things in one way or another. I think it’s a very powerful way of considering how we live our lives, how we treat each other and how we treat the life support system that surrounds us.
[38:46] Narrator: As elevating as it can be to live in the rarified air so high above our planet, eventually you have to come back down to Earth. And that reality can be crushing. Astronauts exercise for at least two hours a day to prevent their muscles from wasting away, but they still have to adapt to the feeling of weight again, of balancing their now too-heavy head on their neck; like toddlers, learning how to stabilize themselves when they walk. The longer you’re in space, the longer that re-adjustment period takes.
Last April, in the midst of the rapidly-growing coronavirus pandemic, three astronauts returned to Earth. One had been on the Space Station for almost 9 months, the other two for six months.
Video of their landing site in Kazakhstan shows them being carried out of the Soyuz capsule, one by one. As face-masked teams tend to them, the astronauts sit calmly, feeling the weighted blanket of gravity pulling them ever closer to the planet.
[39:54] They’d been told about the coronavirus pandemic while they were on the Space Station. Astronauts are quarantined for weeks before they go up to space, to make sure they don’t bring any viruses with them -- especially because the reduced gravity tends to weaken their immune systems. Now back home, when they most longed to reconnect with loved ones, they’d have to maintain that isolation.
They knew the world they returned to was, in some aspects, heavier than the one they’d left. But still, in that moment they look glad to be here – smiling in the sunny field, the fresh wind caressing their cheeks, carrying with it the lush fragrance of young grass, Spring-time blossoms, and good, warm earth.
[40:46] Thanks to Gordon Andrews, Jami Quinn and Brandi Dean at NASA’s Johnson Space Center for providing the astronaut interviews, which were originally recorded for a video series called “Down to Earth.” You can find the entire series on the Johnson Space Center’s YouTube page.
If you like this podcast, please subscribe, rate us on your favorite podcast platform, and share us on social media. We’re “On a Mission,” a podcast of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory.
[Run time = 41:27]