Russell Schweickart on the Whole Earth

Here is a beautiful description of looking down on earth from space that American astronaut Russell Schweickart delivered in the summer of 1974 to a gathering on ‘‘Planetary Culture’’.

Up there you go around every hour and a half, time after time after time. You wake up usually in the mornings. And just the way that the track of your orbits go, you wake up over the Mid-East, over North Africa. As you eat breakfast you look out the window as you’re going past and there’s the Mediterranean area, and Greece, and Rome, and North Africa, and the Sinai, the whole area. And you realize that in one glance that what you’re seeing is what was the whole history of man for years - the cradle of civilization. And you think of all that history that you can imagine, looking at that scene.

And you go around down across North Africa and out over the Indian Ocean, and look up at that great subcontinent of India pointed down toward you as you go past it. And Ceylon off to the side, Burma, Southeast Asia, out over the Philippines, and up across that monstrous Pacific Ocean, vast body of water - you’ve never realized how big that is before.

And you finally come up across the coast of California and look for those friendly things: Los Angeles, and Phoenix, and on across El Paso and there’s Houston, there’s home, and you look and sure enough there’s the Astrodome. And you identify with that, you know - it’s an attachment.

And down across New Orleans and then looking down to the south and there’s the whole peninsula of Florida laid out. And all the hundreds of hours you spent flying across that route, down in the atmosphere, all that is friendly again. And you go out across the Atlantic Ocean and back across Africa.

And you do it again and again and again.

And that identity - that you identify with Houston, and then you identify with Los Angeles, and Phoenix and New orleans and everything. And the next thing you recognize in yourself, is you’re identifying with North Africa. You look forward to that, you anticipate it. And there it is. That whole process begins to shift of what it is you identify with. When you go around it in an hour and a half you begin to recognize that your identity is with that whole thing. And that makes a change.

You look down there and you can’t imagine how many borders and boundaries you crossed again and again and again. And you don’t even see ‘em. At that wake-up scene - the MID-EAST - you know there are hundreds of people killing each other over some imaginary line that you can’t see. From where you see it, the thing is a whole, and it’s so beautiful. And you wish you could take one from each side in hand and say, “Look at it from this perspective. Look at that. What’s important?”

And so a little later on, your friend, again those same neighbors, another astronaut, the person next to you goes out to the Moon. And now he looks back and he sees the Earth not as something big, where he can see the beautiful details, but he sees the Earth as a small thing out there. And now that contrast between that bright blue and white Christmas tree ornament and that black sky, that infinite universe, really comes through. The size of it, the significance of it - it becomes both things, it becomes so small and so fragile, and such a precious little spot in that universe, that you can block it out with your thumb, and you realize that on that small spot, that little blue and white thing is everything that means anything to you. All of history and music and poetry and art and war and death and birth and love, tears, joy, games, all of it is on that little spot out there that you can cover with your thumb.

And you realize that that perspective… that you’ve changed, that there’s something new there. That relationship is no longer what it was. And then you look back on the time when you were outside on that EVA and those few moments that you had the time because the camera malfunctioned, that you had the time to think about what was happening. And you recall staring out there at the spectacle that went before your eyes. Because now you’re no longer inside something with a window looking out at a picture, but now you’re out there and what you’ve got around your head is a goldfish bowl and there are no limits here. There are no frames, there are no boundaries. You’re really out there, over it, floating, going 25,000 mph, ripping through space, a vacuum, and there’s not a sound. There’s a silence the depth of which you’ve never experienced before, and that silence contrasts so markedly with the scenery, with what you’re seeing, and the speed with which you know you’re going. That contrast, the mix of those two things, really comes through.

And you think about what you’re experiencing and why. Do you deserve this? This fantastic experience? Have you earned this in some way? Are you separated out to be touched by God to have some special experience here that other men cannot have? You know the answer to that is No. There’s nothing that you’ve done that deserves that, that earned that. It’s not a special thing for you. You know very well at that moment, and it comes through to you so powerfully, that you’re the sensing element for man.

You look down and see the surface of that globe that you’ve lived on all this time and you know all those people down there. They are like you, they are you, and somehow you represent them when you are up there - a sensing element, that point out on the end, and that’s a humbling feeling. It’s a feeling that says you have a responsibility. It’s not for yourself.

The eye that doesn’t see does not do justice to the body. That’s why it’s there, that’s why you’re out there. And somehow you recognize that you’re a piece of this total life. You’re out on that forefront and you have to bring that back, somehow. And that becomes a rather special responsibility. It tells you something about your relationship with this thing we call life. And so that’s a change, that’s something new.

And when you come back, there’s a difference in that world now, there’s a difference in that relationship between you and that planet, and you and all those other forms of life on that planet, because you’ve had that kind of experience. It’s a difference, and it’s so precious. And all through this I’ve used the word you because it’s not me, it’s not Dave Scott, it’s not Dick Gordon, Pete Conrad, John Glenn, it’s you, it’s us, it’s we, it’s life. It’s had that experience. And it’s not just my problem to integrate, it’s not my challenge to integrate, my joy to integrate - it’s yours, it’s everybody’s.

— 21 Feb 2007