A Great Blue Spaceship

A Great Blue Spaceship

Our planet is a great blue spaceship, journeying through the universe.

One of the benefits of the astronaut and cosmonaut programmes since the 1960s has been to provide humans with an eye-in-the-sky perspective on our world from low orbit, and even from the Moon. The Earth appears stunningly beautiful from space, but also uniquely fragile, as it follows its course, moving through the frozen void of night.

With a pandemic raging around the world, and so much suffering and anxiety, I keep picturing Earth as the Apollo 8 astronauts saw it, rising above the desolate surface of the Moon. Well, there is no place like home!

Earthrise on December 24, 1968, as photographed by astronaut William Anders, during the Apollo 8 mission: courtesy of NASA

The atmosphere is our envelope, our guardian, protecting us from cosmic radiation (up to a point): it allows sunlight to reach us, while keeping temperatures on land and in the oceans within a moderate range, and maintaining the moisture and oxygen we need to flourish. Amino acids, carbon dioxide and nitrogen are all-important, since they are the building blocks of life. The balance of temperature, water, atmosphere, energy and nutrients makes possible a profusion of species on Earth. According to the Census of Marine Life, undertaken at the University of Hawaii and Dalhousie University, there are something like 8.7 million different species on Earth – 6.5 million on land and 2.2 million in the ocean depths. This biodiversity simply takes the breath away!

Some people fantasize about moving to other planets, as if life – our life – could in theory be sustained somewhere else, trillions of kilometres away. But we really ought to be taking better care of the planet where we already live. Then again, the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence has led many people to theorize about intelligent life elsewhere, whereas the animal world on Earth includes many intelligent species whose language, thoughts, emotions and instincts are beyond the capacity of humans to understand. We are surrounded by intelligent species – they are on our very doorstep. But we persist in seeing all other life in our own image. Sometimes I worry that the thrust of modern civilization, in compensating for some human weaknesses and in amplifying others, seems to be depriving us of our own instinct for survival.

I believe that everything we do, every word we speak is captured and remembered, every action we take – whether for good or ill – leaves its trace.

Every time I experience the shimmering, ever-shifting play of aurora borealis over Canada, I imagine (in my mind’s eye) Nature as a great book laid open before us, as an ongoing luminous epic poem of vast proportions – a poem that records our joys and sorrows, our interactions with each other and with other species, our knowledge and ignorance, our attempts to overcome our limitations.

Aurora borealis over Canada: photo taken from ISS, courtesy of NASA/JPL

 

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