New Route Publié le 26 août 2019

Views from outer space

Advances put forward by humanity seem to prove we can overcome boundaries once considered impervious. Therefore, in a way, it is difficult to paint a picture of how tiny we are with respect to the rest of the cosmos. On his last mission, Scott Kelly, now a retired astronaut, was very fortunate to see the planet in a new light and took breath-taking pictures of the Earth from above the sky. Pictures that depict a home planet that looks vulnerable and remind us humanity is just an insignificant particle lost in the immensity of the solar system.

Kelly is an American engineer, former military fighter pilot, a test pilot, and a retired astronaut. As a child, he did not do very well at school. And it was not clear for him what he was going to do when he grew up until he read a book that changed his life: The Right Stuff, by Tom Wolfe՚s. The book depicts the journey of the first seven astronauts in history. From that moment on, Scott knew that he wanted to be one of them, he only had to put his mind into it.

And he did. At the end of the training period, he began his career as an astronaut. After three space trips, he was assigned his last mission before his retirement: he had to spend 340 days in the International Space Station. Almost a year in an environment for which his body was not prepared for. His muscular, immune and cardiovascular system could be altered by the harsh conditions of the space flight. Until that moment, the scientific community could not count on enough data to anticipate the real effects he and the rest of the astronauts would experience.

The expedition was key to analyse the challenges of long-term travel, especially since data provided by Scott was compared to that of his identical twin brother Mark, also an astronaut. In this sense, Scott provided a test case to measure in space, while Mark provided a baseline test case to compare those measurements on Earth. The NASA՚s Twins Study allowed scientists to analyse the impacts of the environment on our health and the consequences for future explorations of the solar system.

One of the most striking discoveries from the study is that the ends of each strand of DNA shortened at a different rate. While that is a natural process linked to ageing, in space, the legth of each strand increased. However, once Scott returned to Earth, the strands shortened at a faster rate. This is important not only to arrive at conclusions about the impact on the human body in space, but also to apply them in the development of new treatments and preventive measures for stress-related health risks on Earth.

Looking down at the Earth

Once in the spaceship, astronauts are floating and flying around at 17, 500 miles an hour. And the view is great. As a result, Scott took many pictures of the Earth that allowed a change in perspectives and made people clear we are just a small unit in the vastness of the cosmos. On one of his books, Endurance: A Year in Space. A lifetime of Discovery, Scott describes his almost one-year experience in space, “I feel as though I know the Earth in an intimate way most people don’t—the coastlines, terrains, mountains, and rivers.” He also highlights the fact that environmental issues can be detected from space. Particularly in Asia, air pollution can be identified at a glance, making some areas “appear sick, in need of treatment or at least a chance to heal”. Scott also refers to the depletion of the ozone layer and describes it “as thin as a contact lens over an eye”. Organisations and governments are developing policies that apparently would cool off the impact of global warming and environmental pollution. Pictures, however, —both from outer space or from Earth—are key to raise awareness and prove people that humanity should act immediately.

Besides those images, Scott took breath-taking views of the planet and admired its beauty by sharing with us one of his favourites: the Bahamas. He describes the location as “a large archipelago with a stunning contrast from light to dark colors. The vibrant deep blue of the ocean mixes with a much brighter turquoise, swirled with something almost golden, where the sun bounces off the shallow sand and reefs.”

Among the many pictures he took, there are photos of the aurora, of Lake Wells in Western Australia, and ominous clouds over the American heartland. Some of these Earth art pictures hang on a wall at his home. They have also been published in Infinite wonder: An Astronauts Photographs from a Year in Space, his photobook. Scott proves that being an astronaut does not keep you from also being an artist and that beauty is in everything we do. His pictures remind us of the immensity and vulnerability of our planet, and that, after all, we are no more than a tiny speck of dust in the universe.

Photo: NASA and Robert Markowitz