Lecturer in Big History, University of Amsterdam, Netherlands
This past fall, over 100 Big History teachers and students eagerly listened to a captivating talk by astronaut André Kuipers. The occasion was the second Big History teachers conference in the Netherlands, held on the five-year anniversary of the introduction of the course in Dutch high schools.
Kuipers had been invited to talk about how he became an astronaut, about his experiences in space, and particularly about the way looking back at Earth from space changed the way he looks at the world. That seemed fitting for a Big History conference, because looking at our planet from space inspired many Big History pioneers to pursue the development of a type of history that places human history in its biological, geological, and cosmic context.
Like these Big History pioneers, Kuipers was inspired by one of the first pictures taken of Earth from space: the famous photo Earthrise, taken by the Apollo 8 astronauts in 1968. In fact, in his youth, he stuck Earthrise to his wall. The picture and his love of science fiction books made him determined to travel to space one day and see for himself what Earth looked like from that vantage point.
He succeeded in doing so and traveled to the International Space Station (ISS) twice, the first time in 2004 and a second time in 2011. During the last trip, he spent 193 days in space, which gave him ample opportunity to enjoy the views from the Cupola, the newly installed observatory module of the ISS. From there, he reveled in the unimpeded view of Earth zipping by at tens of thousands of kilometers per hour.
According to Kuipers, even though the view from the Cupola is a bit different from the Earthrise perspective, it evokes the same cosmic feeling. The ISS is much closer to Earth than Apollo 8 was when Earthrise was taken, but from both perspectives, you feel that the Earth is a small sphere floating in a vast cosmos instead of the endless plane we take for granted. In some ways, though, being able to look at the planet from a lesser distance than the Apollo 8 astronauts did enhances this cosmic feeling. Kuipers described flying over the more than a billion inhabitants of India in a matter of minutes, which made people seem tiny compared to everything else.
Close-up views of the Earth revealed stunning beauty. Kuipers particularly liked the Bahamas, with its amazingly shaped and colored atolls; and the Australian outback, with its rocky deserts in different hues of red. But pictures of the Earth taken from space also demonstrated how vulnerable our planet is. Images taken over the years show how the green in the Amazon basin is being replaced by brown tracts of deforested Earth at a rapid pace. These alarming views are reinforced by the blackness of space that contrasts with our planet’s brilliant but extremely thin layers of water and air. In these layers, most of what we know has happened. In them, most of what we will ever know has to happen. We cannot leave them. There is very little for us on the side of the International Space Station opposite Earth.
According to Kuipers, space travel should therefore not be seen as a way to get away from our planet. Even though we are members of a species that wants to explore new environments, we will not be able to go beyond our Solar System, at least not for the foreseeable future. Instead, space travel is important for looking back at Earth. We can use it to map how the Earth is changing, both naturally and as a result of human behavior. And we can use it to help us develop a cosmic feeling, which may encourage us to take good care of the only home in space we have.
There are other ways to become aware of our cosmic context. When driving his car, Kuipers sometimes likes to imagine the world as if it were flipped 90 degrees. That makes him feel he is moving past the Earth, like he did in the space station, glued to the side of our planetary sphere by gravity. And Kuipers is a proponent of teaching Big History, which is why he agreed to speak at the conference. After all, his space travels, talks, and Big History were not only stimulated by a shared point of view, but also have a similar goal: showing us how interdependent the Earth and everything that lives on it are, and encouraging us to manage these interdependencies in a sustainable way.
Cover image: View from the Cupola of the International Space Station, NASA. Public domain.
About the author: Esther Quaedackers is a lecturer in big history at the University of Amsterdam, where she teaches several big history (honours) classes and works on little big histories of building.