Glance up at a clear night sky one evening and you might find what looks to be a slow-moving shooting star making its way across the sky. But that’s no cosmic rock or extraterrestrial life form, my friend. No, that’s that the glimmer of a very human endeavor: an incredible feat of technology that has been sustaining human life in space for the past 20 years!
Sixteen times a day, seven people whiz by above your head in a football field-sized home of metal and solar panels. And while you’re looking up at them, they’re looking down at you!
The remarkable experiment that is the International Space Station (ISS) has not only changed the lives of the astronauts who have been fortunate enough to spend time there. It also has the power to help all of us down here on Earth tap into our fullest human potential, too!
Here’s what’s happening up there, on this zooming monument to what humanity is capable of when we focus on what we have in common, instead of our differences.
Putting Our World into Perspective
If we were to hop in the car and go on a little road trip straight up to the ISS, it would take us about 3 hours and 50 minutes. For a lot of us, that means that the ISS is closer to us than the next major city! When you think of it that way, there really isn’t all that much that separates us down here on Earth from the vastness of space.
That short trip changes a lot more than just a person’s place in the universe. Those who stare down at our little blue marble—with all of the people and places they love—leave with an entirely new perspective on the world.
So, what’s it really like up there, floating around the Earth in one of the most incredible feats of human engineering?
Well, that perspective is one that is, of course, best explained by the astronauts themselves. For this, we turn to astronaut Anne McClain. She lived aboard the International Space Station from December of 2018 to June of 2019 where she served as flight engineer!
PBS Terra caught up with her while she was on board to learn what life on the ISS is like, and how her thousands of trips around the planet can inform our lives down here on Earth.
If you want to check out more from PBS Terra, head over to their YouTube channel! There, you’ll find an incredible array of videos about science and nature that explore the frontiers of science, tech, our planet, and ourselves!
For another great video from them, check out this awesome adventure in Antarctica:
“It gives you this perspective of really what we’re capable of when we focus on our common interests, instead of our differences.” —Anne McClain
So many astronauts describe this feeling of gaining a shift in perspective when they see the Earth from above, that it even has a name: the Overview Effect. People who leave this planet as test pilots, scientists, and military personnel come back with a new view of our shared humanity. Some even devote their lives back on Earth to public service, philanthropy, or the arts!
But do we have to leave our planet to feel this kind of shift in perspective, too? I don’t think so, but I do think that hearing stories like these from our astronauts, and seeing them out in space can get us all closer!
Take a minute and go back to 2:28 of the video you just watched. Turn off the sound and watch as the astronaut in the video leaves the ISS and goes out into the vastness of space. At 2:34 you can see the harness that keeps them attached to the ISS and there, in the background, is the horizon of our planet, with its thin blue line of the atmosphere between all of us and the rest of the universe.
There it all is, in Anne’s words: “All of the world, and all of everything you’ve ever known, and every person you’ve been close to, and every experience you’ve ever had in one glimpse of the eye.”
The distances between us may seem large, the vastness of the ocean may seem daunting and our current state may be all we can think about right now. But give yourself a moment to step back, watch those 10 seconds of video, and think about your place, our place, in the seemingly endless expanse of the universe.
It may make us feel small, but that is important: we are all small together.
None of us is more important than the other. Our potential to become the best version of ourselves begins with us recognizing our commonalities, and coming together over those shared goals.
Humans have always ventured to new horizons. We traveled vast distances across open oceans using just the stars, we have ventured to its furthest depths and stepped foot on the moon. Now, with our eyes set on exploring new planets, we will—as with building and sustaining the ISS—have to call upon a global collaboration.
And, for those of us who will never leave this planet, we can take this same approach to explore into the new horizons of solving world hunger, giving all kids access to education, and tackling global climate change.
Accomplishing these goals is as uncharted in our human history as sustaining life in space, and we need to embrace the perspective of the astronauts now, more than ever.
Stay beautiful & keep laughing!
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- PBS Terra. “Life Aboard the International Space Station.” YouTube, 29 Oct. 2020, www.youtube.com/watch?v=jCYeyqailf4&feature=emb_title. Accessed 23 Nov. 2020. ↩