They Saw Earth From Space. Here’s How It Changed Them.

The majesty of our planet can be difficult to describe. But these astronauts will try.

Samantha Cristoforetti

Italian Alps The Italian astronaut holds the record for the second longest uninterrupted spaceflight by a woman, having spent 199 days on the International Space Station in 2015. (NASA’s Peggy Whitson topped that record by almost a hundred days in 2017.) The longer she was in orbit, Cristoforetti says, the more her perception of humanity’s time on Earth evolved. When the massive geologic forces that have sculpted the planet are visible at a glance, the eons in which we crafted pyramids and skyscrapers become nearly indistinguishable. It’s as if, from her vantage point, all our constructed monuments arose overnight. “You’ve got this planet beneath you, and a lot of what you see, especially during the day, does not necessarily point to a human presence. If you look at it on a geologic timescale, it’s almost like we are this flimsy presence, and we really have to stick together as a human family to make sure we are a permanent presence on this planet and not just this blink of an eye.”

For the bulk of human history, it’s been impossible to put Earth in cosmic perspective.

Bound by gravity and biology, we can’t easily step outside it, above it, or away from it. For most of us, Earth is inescapably larger than life. Even now, after nearly six decades of human spaceflight, precious few people have rocketed into orbit and seen the sun peeking out from behind that curved horizon. Since 1961, a mere 556 people have had this rarefied experience. Fewer, just 24, have watched Earth shrink in the distance, growing smaller and smaller until it was no larger than the face of a wristwatch. And only six have been completely alone behind the far side of the moon, cut off from a view of our planet as they sailed in an endlessly deep, star-studded sea.

It’s an inherently unnatural thing, spaceflight. After all, our physiology evolved specifically to succeed on this planet, not above it. Perhaps that’s why it can be difficult for astronauts to describe the experience of seeing Earth from space.

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