Andersen: Scott Kelly’s lessons from space
January 28, 2018
The most compelling, most humbling view of Earth is from the distance of outer space. It seems that humanity is too close to the Earth to recognize and appreciate her unique beauties and values.
Scott Kelly, the astronaut who spent 340 days in space, described his renewed appreciation for our home planet in his book, "Endurance." In a deeply personal account, Kelly gave thanks for the many endearing things he recognized from space, most of which humans seem to take for granted.
While in space, Kelly made a pledge that helped keep him sane as he orbited Earth in the confines of a tiny space station. The first thing he would do when he got home was to walk in the front door, walk out the back door, and jump into the swimming pool. He did just that, still wearing his flight suit.
"The sensation of being immersed in water for the first time in a year is impossible to describe," he wrote. "I'll never take water for granted again."
Kelly's mission is depicted in the National Geographic docudrama "Mars," which dramatizes human space flight to the red planet, a mission Barack Obama endorsed as president: "We will go to Mars – not just to visit, but to remain."
"Mars" depicts a futuristic colonizing mission to this austere, desert planet. Water exists only in the form of ice caps. Mars is barren and cold, so future Martian astronauts won't be jumping into a pool there without glancing off the ice.
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The premise of "Mars" is that life on Earth is too tenuous to ensure human survival because of the usual failings: climate change, a polluted biosphere and the threat of nuclear holocaust.
"We went to the moon because we wanted to," states the film's subtitle. "We went to Mars because we had to."
Some say we should go to Mars for the benefits of science and to gratify the insatiable human will to explore. But colonizing an inhospitable planet so that the human species can survive armageddon is a mad act of desperation. Unfortunately, it's not so futuristic an idea.
Kelly, looking out on Earth, our green/blue bubble in the void, longed for the elements that make Earth habitable and welcoming. "I've learned that grass smells great and wind feels amazing and rain is a miracle. I will try to remember how magical these things are for the rest of my life."
How few of us apply our senses to the natural world like Kelly did upon his return. Perhaps one of the greatest benefits of space travel is found in the reflections of astronauts when they come home and kiss the earth, our genesis.
"I've learned that following the news from space can make Earth seem like a swirl of chaos and conflict, and that seeing the environmental degradation caused by humans is heartbreaking. I've also learned that our planet is the most beautiful thing I've ever seen and that we're lucky to be here."
Kelly concludes that a journey to Mars will be "very difficult, will cost a great deal of money and may cost human lives. But I also know," he acknowledges, "that if we decide to do it, we can."
However, when isolated in the space station, Kelly recognized his need for society. "While I was in space I saw on TV a scene with people sitting down to eat a meal together. The sight moved me with an unexpected yearning. I've learned how important it is to sit and eat with other people."
How few families dine together regularly? How many families are torn apart by social media addiction and the alienation it brings? Many of us might as well be in space for the way we surrender to our devices, missing the real life experiences we need with others.
Technology, coupled with human will, knows no bounds. Is Mars a reasonable quest? Not until we humans learn to live on Earth with care for each other and love for our planet.
Hopefully, each of us doesn't require a year in space to understand and appreciate what we have right here and right now.
Paul Andersen's column appears on Mondays. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.