'Holy shite, what am I seeing out here?': 7 astronauts reveal what it really feels like to live in space
Seeing our planet from space is a rare treat: Fewer than 540 people have ever left the Earth.
Seven astronauts who've blasted off from our planet with NASA came together this week for the premiere of the National Geographic series One Strange Rock. The show, produced by Darren Aronofsky, takes an up-close look at how life on Earth works from a range of perspectives: it juxtaposes macro views of the planet from space with micro-shots of some of the tiniest oxygen-producing organisms, which are four times thinner than a human hair.
Aronofsky said the program aims to show off "the beautiful clockwork" of the Earth. "It's much more complicated than anything a human could conceive of," he said.
The astronauts featured in the series said that leaving the Earth changed how they see our world in remarkable ways. Some gained a different kind of understanding of the science they were taught as kids, while others gained an appreciation for the fact that we don't have to recycle our urine to make coffee here.
The seven astronauts sat down to chat with us about what going to space is really like. Here's what they had to say:
Astronauts have a wide variety of reactions to living in space. Some said it made them feel small and insignificant, others said it make them feel like a god.
"It got rid of that feeling of insignificance," Astronaut Mae Jemison, who went to space in 1992, said of the experience. "I was as much a part of this universe as any speck of stardust. I had as much right to be here."
Astronaut Jerry Linenger said that when he was looking down at the Earth, he sometimes felt like a cosmic creator. "I am like god!" he said.
But being in space also made him aware of his impermanence in the universe. "I'm just a speck in time," Linenger said. "How life evolved is fascinating... it all came together, and here we are!"
Astronaut Mike Massimino marveled at the supreme curvature of the Earth. He believes there's a good chance other life is out in space somewhere, but said, "I wouldn't be surprised if there's nothing quite as nice as this place."
"I think we're pretty significant," Massimino said. "And maybe someone else has a planet somewhere else, but I really think we're gonna win the home tour."
Twitter-famous Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield said that after circling the world on the ISS about 2,650 times, he started to consider his home in a more expansive way.
But that habit changed after a few months of circling the Earth roughly 16 times per day. "What in all of my previous life had been a foreign 'them' part of the world was now just inevitably us," he said. "The difference between 'us' and 'them' went away."
Jeff Hoffman went to space five times between April 1985 and March 1996. During that time, he saw the Amazon rainforest get slashed down from space. "That really got my attention," he said.
"I'll hear some of my astronaut colleagues talk about how from space you can't see boundaries. But it's not true — you do see them," Hoffman said. "You see... different agricultural practices and human behavior on different sides of borders."
Astronaut Nicole Stott said that at first, looking out the window from the ISS was completely overwhelming: "You're just like holy shite, what am I seeing out here?"
Stott said that once, when she was outside the space station, hanging on to it with just one hand, she understood why her mom was freaked out about her trip to space.
But perhaps no one understands what it's like to be in space quite like Peggy Whitson, the woman who's spent 665 days there, more time than any other American.
Whitson has been up there so often, she's started to see the Earth like another big space ship — a really impressive one.
"We're up there trying to re-create everything that's happening here on Earth, and that is really hard," she said.
"If we're gonna explore in deep space, we're going to have to take our atmosphere with us, our climate with us, we have to take all those things,” Whitson said.
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