Looking down at the planet from 200 miles in space, I feel as though I know the Earth in an intimate way most people don’t—the coastlines, terrains, mountains, and rivers. Some parts of the world, especially in Asia, are so blanketed by air pollution that they appear sick, in need of treatment or at least a chance to heal. The line of our atmosphere on the horizon looks as thin as a contact lens over an eye, and its fragility seems to demand our protection. One of my favorite views of Earth is of the Bahamas, 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 like gold, where the sun bounces off the shallow sand and reefs. Whenever new crewmates come up to the International Space Station, I always make a point of taking them to the Cupola—a module made entirely of windows looking down on Earth—to see the Bahamas. That sight always reminds me to stop and appreciate the view of Earth I have the privilege of experiencing.
Sometimes when I’m looking out the window it occurs to me that everything that matters to me, every person who has ever lived and died (minus our crew of six) is down there. Other times, of course, I’m aware that the people on the station with me are the whole of humanity for me now. If I’m going to talk to someone in the flesh, look someone in the eye, ask someone for help, share a meal with someone, it will be one of the five people up here with me.
This is my fourth mission to space, my second to the ISS, and I’ve been here for three weeks now. I’m getting better at knowing where I am when I first wake up, but I’m often still disoriented about how my body is positioned. I’ll wake up convinced that I’m upside down, because in the dark and without gravity, my inner ear just takes a random guess on the position of my body in the small space. When I turn on a light, I have a sort of visual illusion that the room is rotating rapidly as it reorients itself around me, though I know it’s actually my brain readjusting in response to new sensory input.