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SYFY WIRE Bad Astronomy

Astronauts Want to Save the World

By Phil Plait

I frequently write about our Earth as a planet, a world, an interconnected system of water, air, energy … and people. We are a part of this planet as much as it is a host to us. While our effect on it is subtle, in the long run just as profound as its effect on us.

Who better to understand that than the privileged few who have seen it from afar, literally leaving the Earth to experience it as a whole? That is why this video, made by astronauts and presented at the Paris Climate Change Conference in December 2015, is so compelling and so moving.

I know this post comes a little late when it comes to the conference, which was last month, but the message those men and women are giving us is timeless: We are the caretakers of this world as well as its beneficiaries, and we must preserve it. The first step in that is understanding and appreciating it.

There is a state of mind, called the Overview Effect, that almost every astronaut experiences. It starts slowly; at first, each astronaut delights in seeing their hometown from orbit. Then, perhaps a day later, their region. Some time later, it’s when they see their home country that they feel it.

Eventually though, even that is supplanted by another, broader feeling: Borders slip away, the sense of ownership over a particular piece of land fades, and they find themselves a citizen not of a nation, but of a world.

Astronaut Ron Garan’s life was changed profoundly when he felt this, and he dedicated his life to helping others. He wrote a book about it, The Orbital Perspective, which I strongly recommend. In it, he shows how we can all help work toward a better future if we take on even a little bit of this view.

He also founded an effort called Fragile Oasis to help all us Earthbound folks along with this. He wants to make a difference, and I strongly support that too.

I sometimes wonder if, in the decades and centuries to follow, as humans walk the red dusty surface of Mars, ply the asteroid belt, swoop low over the surfaces of distant, icy moons … what will they feel is the most important aspect of space exploration? Perhaps, from their view, it won’t be the fact that they do it, but that, in the early days of the Space Age, we came together as a planet and made it possible for them to do it.

I like that future. Let’s make it happen.  

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