Some space buffs argue that the potential to colonize other planets has made Earth disposable, a way station to be chucked into the planetary boneyard as humanity migrates deeper into the cosmos.
But a new book revealing the thoughts of the few people who've had the chance to look back from space reaches exactly the opposite conclusion.
"The Home Planet," published simultaneously in the Soviet Union, the United States (by Addison-Wesley) and seven other countries, is a compilation of 150 color photographs selected from the entire U.S. and Soviet stockpile of space photos, combined with the observations, trite and profound, of about 100 astronauts and cosmonauts from 18 countries.
"The first day or so we all pointed to our countries. The third or fourth day we were pointing to our continents. By the fifth day we were aware of only one Earth," said Sultan Bin Salman al-Saud of Saudi Arabia, who had a window seat on Discovery 5.
One-Earth Point of View
Kevin Kelley, who conceived and edited the book, admits that his own point of view permeates "Home Planet," which was sponsored by the Assn. of Space Explorers (ASE), a 3-year-old organization of astronauts and cosmonauts, and funded by the Institute of Noetic Sciences, a Northern California-based quasi-New Age think tank started by astronaut Edgar Mitchell.
Kelley excluded, for instance, an American astronaut's thoughts on the advantages of having fences between the back yards of neighbors and borders between countries. But he included Muhammad Ahmad Faris of Syria's observation: "From space I saw Earth--indescribably beautiful with the scars of national boundaries gone."
A poll of the 204 people who've blasted into space would not find unanimous approval of the book's pervasive tone of "space transformed me to a warm and mystical brotherhood-of-man world view," concedes Kelley.
"A lot of guys said it didn't change them at all, not in the slightest, " he said. One astronaut even stood up at an ASE convention and said, "I think this (book) is just a bunch of mushy, emotional (nonsense)."
Most of the astronauts don't share that opinion, Kelley said. And editorial biases aside, clear themes do emerge in the observations of the people who contributed.
Speaking by phone from Washington, where he and cosmonaut Aleksandr P. Aleksandrov were preparing to splash down after an international book tour, Apollo astronaut Russell Schweickart said the one thing that is almost universal among those who've been to space is a heightened anxiety about the environmental threat.
Watching 16 sunrises and sunsets with each day's orbiting, seeing the patterns of global pollution on the blue and green ball below, impressed the contributors.
"Mankind is beginning to do some serious damage to its own home," wrote Aleksandrov. "From space you can see it--everything is interconnected here."
"I realized that mankind needs height primarily to better know our long-suffering Earth, to see what cannot be seen close up," wrote Pham Tuan, of Vietnam.
Ulf Merbold, of West Germany, saw the "thin seam of dark blue light--our atmosphere. Obviously this was not the ocean of air I had been told it was so many times in my life. I was terrified by its fragile appearance."
"When the Russian cosmonaut tells me that the atmosphere over Lake Baikal is as polluted as it is over Europe, and when the American astronaut tells me that 15 years ago he could take much clearer pictures of the industrial centers than today, then I am getting concerned," wrote Ernst Messerschmid of West Germany.
Sandstorms and Silt
Africa "looked ill with its sandstorms and the dried-out areas" to Robert Overmyer of the United States. And looking down on Madagascar, Karl Henize of the United States lamented that "the ocean around that island is colored a thick bloody red by the silt that is being eroded from recently deforested areas."
"After an orange cloud--formed as a result of a dust storm over the Sahara and caught up by air currents--reached the Philippines and settled there with rain, I understood that we are all sailing in the same boat," wrote Vladimir Kovalyonok of the U.S.S.R.
Neither of the space explorers out stumping for the book was willing to condemn his country for firing him into space while watching other technologies kill lakes with acid rain or erupt into the sort of radioactive volcano that Chernobyl became.
By sharing their awareness with society, astronauts and cosmonauts may indirectly influence government policies, said Aleksandrov.
A Different Perspective
"There's not a reader of the L.A. Times who has not polluted, trashed something, created a local environmental problem, " said Schweickart. But individuals and governments are learning, he said. And in his view, it's not coincidental that the birth of the modern environmental movement coincided with the first pictures from space.
Before space photography, a traveler moving across the Earth had the perspective of a fly strolling on the Mona Lisa, Richard W. Underwood wrote in an afterword to the book. "It would be difficult to appreciate the beauty and the genius of da Vinci that way."
"Home Planet" bills itself the biggest (and some would say the best) collection of space photography yet assembled. As beautiful as they are, though, the photos don't fully capture the subject, those who have been there said.
"They're like spectacular photographs from your favorite vacation. Friends might think they're pretty good, but you recall the whole scene," said Schweickart. It's the combination of photos and thoughts "from the heart" that bring backs the inspiration.
A Mystic Experience
This cosmic inspiration brought out the latent mystic in some contributors. Returning to Earth, Edgar Mitchell, for instance, "suddenly experienced the universe as intelligent, loving, harmonious."
Many of the Soviets, on the other hand, were struck by a mixture of existential fear and loving.
"We think without consideration about the boundless ocean of air, and then you sit aboard a spacecraft, you tear away from Earth, and within 10 minutes you have been carried straight through the layer of air, and beyond there is nothing! Beyond the air there is only emptiness, coldness, darkness. The 'boundless' blue sky, the ocean which gives us breath and protects us from the endless black and death, is but an infinitesimally thin film. How dangerous it is to threaten even the smallest part of this gossamer covering, this conserver of life," wrote cosmonaut Vladimir Shatalov.
'How Have We Answered?'
"The thought that life and humankind might be unique in the endless universe depressed me and brought melancholy upon me, and yet at the same time compelled me to evaluate everything differently," wrote Yuri Glazkov. "Nature has been limitlessly kind to us, having helped humankind appear, stand up, and grow stronger. She has generously given us everything she has amassed over the billions of years of inanimate development. We have grown strong and powerful, yet how have we answered this goodness?"
"By nature, the Russian people are probably a bit more emotional," said Schweickart. "Most of the American observations are sort of 'Wow, fantastic!' Or sort of factual. Whereas the Russian expressions are often more poetic."
Kelley agrees, attributing this in part to the fact that Russians read more and have a "a stronger sense of literature." He believes that the American space program looks for "a certain breed of people, people who are extremely objective, like Chuck Yeager," screening out people who might react too emotionally or romantically to space.
He believes the book strikes a good balance. But the essential impression, emotional or rational, is the same: The pull of Earth goes beyond mere gravity.
Memories of Home
"After several weeks it became difficult to remember clearly the fragrance of grass and trees, or warm summer rain, or powdery snow in a glade," wrote Pyotr Kilmuk, of the Soviet Union.
On the same extended voyage, Valeri Tyumin poured over a picture book someone smuggled aboard for him. It was filled not with shots of space, but pictures of streams, rivers and lakes from the Moscow countryside of his youth. "It reminded me of my childhood outings to fish, and nights by the fire, sunrise, sundown, home."
And on an extended flight, in a capsule well-stocked with every kind of music, the cosmonauts found themselves "listening most frequently of all" to "nature sounds: thunder, rain, the singing of birds."
"Looking outward to the blackness of space, sprinkled with the glory of a universe of lights, I saw majesty--but no welcome," wrote American Loren Acton. "Below was a welcoming planet. There, contained in the thin, moving, incredibly fragile shell of the biosphere is everything that is dear to you, all the human drama and comedy. That's where life is; that's where all the good stuff is."
As he observes in another passage: "When you look out the other way toward the stars you realize it's an awful long way to the next watering hole."