Archibald MacLeish

An astronaut’s view from space: ‘The earth is a beautiful planet.’

“If you could see the earth illuminated when you were in a place as dark as night,” Galileo wrote in 1632, “it would look to you more splendid than the moon.”

“Never in all their history have men been able to truly conceive of the the world as one,” the American poet Archibald MacLeish, a Boston native, said in his commencement address at Williams College, Williamstown, Mass., in 1942. “A single sphere, a globe, having the qualities of a globe, a round earth in which all directions would eventually meet, in which there is no centre because every point, or none, is centre — an equal earth which all men occupy as equals.”

American astronaut Scott Kelly, who spent a then-record 340 days in space as part  NASA’s proposed “year-long mission to the International Space Station from March 27, 2015 to March 1, 2016, put it more succinctly, if less poetically, in his oft-quoted, “The earth is a beautiful planet.”

Kelly expounds on that thought in his biography  Endurance: A Year in Space, A Lifetime of Discovery, published just last week — “The space station is a great vantage point to observe and share our planet in pictures . . . It makes you more of an environmentalist.”



Kelly was relaxed, laid-back and jocular in conversation Friday night with Stephen Colbert in an appearance on CBS’s The Late Show, allowing that a day doesn’t go by that he doesn’t think about being back on the ISS, where planet Earth seems less both fragile and beautiful, and life, politics and the battle for the environment seem less . . . complicated.

“I believe in exploration, and I will miss being on the front lines of that endeavour,” he said at the time. “On one hand, I look forward to going home, but it's something that's been a big part of my life, and I'm going to miss it.”

3  screen shot 2.jpg

There was more where that came from.

“When you look at the... atmosphere on the limb of the Earth, I wouldn't say it looks unhealthy, but it definitely looks very, very fragile and just kind of like this thin film, so it looks like something that we definitely need to take care of. . . 

“The thing I like most about flying in space is not the view. The thing I like about it is doing something I feel very, very strongly about.”

©NASA/Scott Kelly

©NASA/Scott Kelly

And this: “There are parts of the Earth that are covered with pollution all the time. I saw weather that was unexpected. Storms bigger than we've seen in the past. This is a human effect. This is not a natural phenomenon.”

And this: “There are . . . parts of Asia, Central America that, when you look at them from space, you're always looking through a haze of pollution. As far as the atmosphere is concerned, and being able to see the surface, you know, I would say definitely those areas that I mentioned look kind of sick.”

Screen Shot 2017-10-28 at 11.01.47 AM.png

“A year is a long time to live without the human contact of loved ones, fresh air, and gravity, to name a few.”

This, too, shall pass.

The first thing Kelly did, when he got home — as in literally home, his own house — Kelly told Colbert was jump in the swimming pool. For all the things the International Space Station offers, from spectacular  sunrises to a new perspective on our home world, it’s impossible to take a shower. Kelly simply wanted the feel of water on his body, he told Colbert. It’s always the simple things.  

The complete interview: