View from space
August 14, 2005
“When in doubt,” says photographer David Hiser, “go higher.” The reference is to photography, but the maxim also speaks to vision and insight. Standing on a mountain pass or high peak offers a rare perspective on the world, and the higher you get, the better the perspective.Trailblazers have always sought high ground from which to chart their courses through the wilderness. Lewis and Clark gained elevation in the Bitterroots to determine their way to the Pacific. Ferdinand Hayden and his “Rover Boys” climbed the highest peaks in the Elk Range to accurately survey the Roaring Fork Valley. A mountain summit becomes a mere pimple when you think of the perspective from outer space. Astronauts often return from missions with a profound shift in attitude about the earth. Their appreciation for the planet grows with newfound awareness gleaned from beyond the atmosphere.Last week, while supervising space walks to repair the shuttle Discovery, Commander Eileen Collins looked out at the Earth and saw widespread environmental destruction. Her immediate reaction was alarm.During a video transmission to Earth, Collins warned that greater care was needed to protect natural resources. That warning wasn’t part of her mission as a shuttle commander; it was her mission as a caring human being.”Sometimes you can see how there is erosion, and you can see how there is deforestation. It’s very widespread in some parts of the world,” said Collins. “We would like to see, from the astronauts’ point of view, people take good care of the Earth and replace the resources that have been used.”The space program has proved that nationalities are linked by the common thread of humanity. What Collins and other space travelers come to understand is that humanity is inexorably linked to the Earth and its fragile, life-sustaining atmosphere and biosphere.”The atmosphere almost looks like an eggshell on an egg, it’s so very thin,” described Collins. “We know that we don’t have much air, we need to protect what we have.”When Apollo 14 astronaut Edgar Mitchell, one of only 12 humans to walk the lunar surface, looked at Earth, he said, “It was a beautiful, harmonious, peaceful-looking planet, blue with white clouds … and one that gave you a deep sense of home, of being, of identity. Each man comes back to Earth with a feeling that he is no longer only an American citizen; he is a planetary citizen.”Apollo Astronaut Eugene Cernan had a similar reaction. “I stood in the blue darkness and looked in awe at the Earth from the lunar surface. What I saw was almost too beautiful to grasp.””The greatest fallout of the space program,” reasoned the Rev. Theodore Hesburgh, president of Notre Dame University, “was not the close-up view of the moon, but a look at spaceship Earth from afar. For the first time in the history of humanity, we were able to see our planet for what it really is.” Observations from space paint a picture of a delicate planet floating in an otherwise lifeless void. On the ground, our observations of ecological disasters underscore that perspective, especially the way it was expressed in a recent article by Bill Marsh in The New York Times: “Pristine lands, by the strictest definition, no longer exist, scientists say. Atmospheric pollution has settled on every earthly surface. Human-induced climate change is affecting ecosystems across the planet. Untrammeled landscapes are fragmented and shrinking.” Paul Andersen thinks we need a global perspective shift if we hope to save what’s left. His column appears on Mondays.
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