There is the horizon, and there is a shield of light. It drops away to an inky, cobalt blue, and fades almost regretfully into the deepest black night.
In a tiny silver speck orbiting tirelessly around this spinning planet, Chris Hadfield switches off his camera and turns in for the night.
Hadfield is Mission Commander on board the International Space Station. His day job is conducting experiments and operating the Canadarm2 robotic device that functions as part of the ISS infrastructure. In his downtime, he catches up with ice hockey, gives talks to schools, makes videos on the oddities of ISS life, and takes some of the most compelling photos of our beautiful planet yet in existence.
People leave marks wherever they go. We build, we create, and inevitably we destroy. To look across the globe is to understand our compulsion to etch our fleeting presence on our world, and to understand how very tiny those machinations are to which we cling most tightly. One of my favourite quotes on this is from Edgar Mitchell, an Apollo 14 astronaut, who said of spaceflight: “You develop an instant global consciousness, a people orientation, an intense dissatisfaction with the state of the world, and a compulsion to do something about it. From out there on the moon, international politics look so petty. You want to grab a politician by the scruff of the neck and drag him a quarter of a million miles out and say, “Look at that, you son of a bitch.”“
The crew of the ISS are the furthest humans from our planet. Their lonely viewpoint allows them to see – and allows us to experience, vicariously – our pale blue dot, as it appears in macro.
There is a fascination to that solitude. Space flight is something that has never lost its wonder, from the time we first sent brave pioneers into orbit and had them return to a hero’s welcome. Space travel is so far beyond the reach of the everyman, even now, that we retain a childlike awe at the very thought. We are limitless, we story-telling apes, in our imagination. We want that experience. We want to be lifted above our lives, to be able to look down at everyone alive in the world, and to say yes, that is ours. That is our home.
This, then, is one facet of the appeal of Hadfield’s photography: it marries an alien perspective with a familiar subject. There is a thrill to finding a photo of your city and reading the streetlights to find your way around. In photographs from space, we experience a double consciousness. We are the painter, and the sitter. We experience art; we make art; we are art.
For all our faults, we are still so beautiful.
Those of us who enjoy astronomy revel in viewing the photographs the Curiosity Rover sends back from Mars. Interpreting the geography of an alien planet is fascinating; we are explorers, readers, inwardly running our hands over rocks we will never touch in reality, piecing together the history of its mountains and plains. It’s easy to forget that we live on just such a planet ourselves – constitutionally different, of course, but equally as amazing, equally as strange. We live in a microcosm, all of us. We spend so much of our time on so little an area of land that the disconnect involved in contemplating the whole is startling. There are beauties you will never see, entire continents you may never visit.
And this is thrilling!
There are seven billion of us down here, and that is what we share – the love and stewardship of this planet of ours. Alone, each of us is so insignificant in the wider scheme of things. Collectively, we can send people into space to reflect our lives back at us through beautiful photographs.
Carl Sagan was right to observe that exploration is in our nature. We began as wanderers, and we are wanderers still. I hope within our lifetimes we have the chance to experience that wonder for ourselves. For now, it’s a privilege to experience the visual story of our existence from the perspective of our most adventurous wanderers.
In Jostein Gaarder’s Sophie’s World, the philosopher Albert sends Sophie a letter asking her if she has ever thought about meeting a little man from Mars while she is out walking. “What would you think?” he asks. “Never mind, it’s not important. But have you ever given any thought to the fact that you are a Martian yourself? It is obviously unlikely that you will ever stumble upon a creature from another planet. We do not even know that there is life on other planets. But you might stumble upon yourself one day. You might suddenly stop short and see yourself in a completely new light. On just such a walk in the woods. I am an extraordinary being, you think. I am a mysterious creature.”
(Thank you, Commander Hadfield, and safe home.)