It was my childhood dream to become an astronaut, and I feel quite
honored and privileged that I was able to fly on the space shuttle four times
and join the ranks of fewer than 600 people who have seen our beautiful
planet from the vantage point of low Earth orbit. Each astronaut and
cosmonaut has a vivid memory of the awe and wonder they felt the first
time they saw Earth through the window of their spacecraft.
My first view was very similar to this picture of the Philippine
Sea, taken recently by a space station crewmember. I was
captivated by the sunlight on the ocean’s surface and the
towering thunderstorms casting long shadows across the water.
It’s hard to move away from the window and go back to work as
the wonder of what we see never diminishes.
Aside from being in space, one of the most enjoyable aspects
of being an astronaut is sharing my experiences with the public.
I especially enjoy the opportunity to talk with elementary
school students. In an effort to compare my experiences with
what they understand best, their daily lives, they often ask what
we do for fun. My quick reply of “Look out the window!” is
met with bored faces until I start showing them pictures of
erupting volcanoes, auroras, towering desert sand dunes lit by
the setting sun, and mesmerizing videos of thunderstorms and
lightning viewed from low Earth orbit. Soon, they absolutely
understand why we spend as much time as we can looking out
Fortunately for astronauts and cosmonauts, looking out
our spacecraft’s windows is part of our job. Often, we receive
specialized training from geologists and oceanographers to
become their eyes in space, and the scientific photos we collect
become part of the NASA Earth Observation program. On a
daily basis, earth scientists send up a list of locations or features
they need to be photographed, and astronauts do their best to
return photos that will be useful for earth sciences research.
From the earliest human spaceflights, crewmembers have had
cameras onboard their spacecraft. We now have more than fifty
years of photographs and videos observing Earth. Coupled with
imagery from satellites such as Landsat, this gives scientists a
unique resource, not to mention a large data set, for tracking
changes on this planet.
Sadly, many of these changes are human-caused. I’ve seen
them with my own eyes. I was struck by what I observed
between my first mission in 1995 and my last one in 2005.
A thick layer of pollution now obscured cities in China that
were easy to spot in 1995. Ten years later, bodies of water
such as Lake Chad and the Aral Sea were much smaller in size.
Deforestation of the rain forests in the Amazon and Indonesia
had continued at an alarming rate.
But you don’t have to just take my word for this. An archive
of imagery taken during U.S. spaceflight missions can be
found at the Gateway to Astronaut Photography of Earth
website ( https://eol.jsc.nasa.gov/) and the Windows on Earth
website ( http://www.windowsonearth.org/). To see a series of
photographs taken from 2000 to 2012 that shows the dramatic
reduction in the Amazon rain forest, go to NASA’s Earth
Observatory website ( http://earthobservatory.nasa.gov/Features/
WorldOfChange/ deforestation.php). These views from space,
and others like them, show us quite clearly that humans are