The Apollo missions to the Moon gave people a completely new view of Earth and its natural satellite. Descriptions from the astronauts of a glowing blue and white orb hanging in the void of space, contrasted with a desolate gray Moon, were now scenes viewed in print and on television screens around the globe. Those images played a part in reframing a scientific and cultural understanding of Earth, suggesting a need to take a closer look at Earth.
In the decades after the Apollo Program ended, beginning with Skylab missions in the 1970s, then Space Shuttle missions, and now the International Space Station, orbital locations were provided for astronaut activities, including setting eyes on the wonders of our home planet. Our “eyesight,” meaning our capabilities with cameras and other technologies, improved gradually. What is learned from observations with the human eye and those assisted by cameras, lenses, or satellites provide new insights. Those insights largely support and enhance what we learn from remotely operated satellites. For instance, repeated views of the same locations for decades show human influence on the planet, and impressions offered by astronauts that come along with those photographs add layers of emotion and interpretation impossible to achieve through satellite imagery. We rely on astronauts to serve as our visual surrogates, informing our vision of what life on Earth looks like on a daily basis.
Let’s take a single city as an example of how seeing Earth from space might change a person’s point of view. Few cities in the United States are as beloved as New Orleans, Louisiana. The home of jazz, Mardi Gras celebrations, and a mecca for southern creole food, the city has attracted settlers and visitors for over two hundred years. The city attracts many with its character, music, food, and nightlife. It also attracted the attention of astronauts orbiting Earth, as early as the Apollo 7 mission in 1968 (above, left). While images from directly overhead without clouds, and the use of high powered lenses was decades away, the impression of the Crescent City as a flat and vulnerable location is undeniable. The photographs taken by Apollo and Shuttle astronauts may not offer much in the way of scientific information, but they set the stage for future analysis and serve as a reminder of how things appeared in the past, before disaster struck.
Hurricane Katrina ravaged the city of New Orleans in the summer of 2005. The storm’s flooding left many homeless, dead, or displaced. NASA’s own Stennis Space Center (where the Space Shuttle’s external tanks were assembled) is just on the outskirts of the city, meaning NASA had a vested interest in seeing just how badly the storm damaged the area. The Center was already serving as a shelter for displaced residents, so an overview of its stability confirmed their ability to continue helping the community.
Due to the space station’s fly-over route, it took almost a week after the storm for Expedition 11 commander Sergei Krikalev and Flight Engineer John Phillips to get a view of damage to the city. Normally bright areas of streets and buildings were darkened showing where flooding saturated the entire area or just destroyed things (see left image above). Zooming in the first image using online NASA’s image tools makes it clear just how dire life in the city was in the fall of 2005 (I recommend searching using the Gateway to Astronaut Photography of Earth). In comparison, looking at an image from the spring of 2022 (right image above), taken nearly seventeen years later, that view from 250 miles up looks drastically different. While people themselves cannot be seen, their imprint on the Earth is more than evident.
New tools such as digital cameras, high powered lenses, digital file transfers from space, online photography archives, and even social media assist in bringing our world into sharper focus. While Krikalev and Phillips may have commented on Katrina to NASA by video or during interviews, those comments are not easily accessible on the internet. Communicating such observations grew easier with time and greater access to the internet, though it was another four years until the first Tweet from space. Astronauts don’t really have the kind of stable Wi-Fi internet access we are accustomed to in our own homes because of how quickly they move around Earth.
The home of astronauts in space, the International Space Station, serves as a testbed for new technological developments, scientific discoveries, educational programs, and awe-inspiring views of Earth. One of the most popular spaces for views of Earth is the cupola, a classic feature of many domed roofs on Earth, which on the ISS points towards Earth. Added in 2010, the cupola offers panoramic views and room for multiple crewmembers to observe exterior station work or Earth passing below. Many comment that it is their favorite space on the station, offering a peaceful space that makes them feel connected to life on Earth. The windows between them and the vacuum of space are much thicker than a household window, but that doesn’t change the ability of astronauts to capture photographs of everything from weather to natural disasters to urban growth. The value of those images, and the spaces in which the astronauts view them, make impressions beyond just being beautiful. Seeing Earth from space through astronaut eyes adds humanity to the scientific data our robotic satellite helpers send automatically.
In the new One World Connected exhibition, visitors will be able to experience what it is like to be looking at Earth from the ISS cupola.