Even with the ability to fly between continents in matter of hours, we tend to think of the Earth as an almost unimaginable vast place, so big that nothing a few tiny humans could do would ever affect it. Except for pictures, only a few hundred human beings have ever had the chance to look down on the Earth from -- well, from somewhere else. A few have stood on the surface of the moon and gazed back at the world we call home. Some have looked down on our blue planet from orbit. Most of them come away thinking something like: It's really not as big as I imagined it was.
That means two very important things for all of us. First, we are much closer to both our friends and those we call enemies than we think we are and humanity might be better served if we realized that, in the end, we're all neighbors and perhaps, more importantly, members of the same human family.
The second thing is that while romantic phrases like the endless oceans sound nice on paper, the Earth is a very finite and relatively small world and the things we do have the power to affect it profoundly. Nobody knows that better than veteran NASA astronaut Scott Parazynski who flew on five space shuttle missions and logged 47 hours outside the shuttle and the International Space Station on space walks. I recently spoke with Parazynski, currently the Chief Technology Officer and Chief Medical Officer of the Methodist Hospital Research Institute in Houston, Texas, about the unique perspective one gets when they have a chance to see the Earth in its totality.
You're one of the very select club of people who have had the opportunity to look out over the Earth both from the summit of Mount Everest and from space. Can you compare the two experiences for us?
Parazynski: It's an incredible vantage point, either one, very similar in many regards, and also very different. One of the most striking things you can see on planet Earth is the sunrise or sunset which happens 16 times a day when you're going around the Earth at 17,500 miles an hour, one orbit every 90 minutes, so half of that time you're in sunlight and half you're in darkness. The transitions are incredibly beautiful, but they happen very, very quickly.
You see the sun rise from behind the earth and the full spectrum of light. It's just breathtaking. You'd really like to just let it linger so you can really appreciate it, so one of the things that I really wanted to do was to see a sunrise from the summit of Everest. I was very fortunate to be able to do that. I arrived at 4 a.m., on March 20, 2009 and the sun started to come up at around 4:05 in the morning. For the 30 minutes that I was on top of the world and the full descent down the summit ridge I was able to watch the sun come up from that incredible vantage. It was just so incredible. It really cemented in my mind that experience.
You can clearly see the curvature of the Earth from the summit of Everest. You really feel like you're in space for all intents and purposes. You're wearing a big down suit, a big backpack with oxygen on your back, and big mitts. It's almost like being out on a spacewalk. It's like you're on another world.
As the space shuttle is retired and we move toward commercial space launch vehicles, what do you think of the overall direction of the space industry?
Parazynski: I think this is a challenging time for NASA and our space community. I think the American public as a whole is still very, very interested in pressing boundaries and going into space. I think we're really going to miss the space shuttle program, but I hope these new commercial entities can deliver on the potential that they have and get not only NASA crews up into space, but many more people than we've currently been able to do. I think there have been about 515 human beings that have seen their planet from space. I'd love to see that in the tens of thousands within the decade. I think that will be a great thing for humanity. Hopefully, with a recovery in the economy, NASA and its partners can really do some bold things and get us to Mars.
It's interesting that you just mentioned something that's a recurring theme among people who have been into space: that looking down on the Earth really changes your perspective. Do you think seeing the planet from that particular vantage point would be a good thing for many more people.
Parazynski: Absolutely. I've talked about this in a lot of public forums as well. It would be really incredible if we could get some of our world leaders to see the planet from space. Certainly those world leaders from areas of high conflict, if we could get them to share that view together it would really change some of their perspective.
Certainly it changes your global view of the planet. I think everyone who travels into space at one level or another becomes something of an environmentalist. You see how fragile the planet is and how humanity truly does scar the planet. The ugliest things you see from space are all man-made. The more people that can see and appreciate that, the better.
What about you personally? Would you consider going back up again maybe with one of the private space companies?
Parazynski: I haven't given up the hope of flying again. I'll put it that way. I would love to go fly again, and if the opportunity is right, I probably would.
With commercial flights to low earth orbit likely to begin as early as 2012, as Virgin Galactic CEO, George Whitesides told me recently, many, many more of us will have the opportunity to look down on the cradle of humanity from above it all. Will we all come away with the same perspective reported by so many of NASA's astronauts, or will our experience depend upon what we already carry inside us? Perhaps, the current group of astronauts tends to come away from the experience with a stronger sense of global community because they carried "The Right Stuff" inside them all along. It will be interesting to see how many of us can find some of that same quality within us over the next decades as space travel becomes as commonplace as air travel is today.space sciences for him. Since then, he has spent 40 years watching improvements in the technologies of space travel and our understanding of the universe. Follow Brad's space-related writing on Twitter @Space_Matters or on his Space Matters Facebook page.