To Infinity and Beyond: What The Final Frontier Taught Us About The First Frontier

I was having a conversation with a friend one night and the subject of space flight came up, particularly its importance and what kind of impact it’s had on the world and the environment. I had to pause. My knee-jerk reaction to this question was the obviously NASA and space flight is massively important to the Earth and the human psyche. But when pressed for the why I didn’t have much of an answer. I knew that space flight had created national heroes and had inspired kids everywhere to want to be astronauts when they grew up, but how far that impact actually stretched? I had no idea. Obviously how important you think space flight is subjective and can only be decided after you look at the impact space flight has had. So as I began to read and look for answers, I discovered that NASA and spaceflight have had three major impacts, at least by my count: economical, technological, and environmental. Each one telescopes and cascades in the others. And it is in these three areas that we find how NASA almost single-handedly shaped the future.

I want to hit the economic impact of NASA first because it largely explains itself without too much coercion. So what kind of impact does NASA have on the economic and the fiscal well being of the country? NASA’s running budget since its founding in 1958 is $555 billion. That buys Gemini, Apollo, the Shuttle program, the International Space Station, the Rovers, and every satellite NASA has ever put into orbit. Think of how many jobs any single one of these project requires. I have many family friends that have worked with NASA directly or indirectly and whose paychecks were created because there is such an organization that has made the impossible its goal. Spaceflight creates thousands of jobs, and thousands of people fill those jobs and get paid lots of money to do it. That money then gets reinserted back into the economy as those people spend their hard earned paychecks. And not only are these people spending money, they’re creating and developing new technologies that provide new jobs for other people and new ways of enhancing the way of life around the world. The economic trickle effect felt by NASA is tangible and quantifiable. If NASA were removed from the picture and they stopped innovating and inventing new technologies, our economic world would stagnate. And to truly see NASA’s effect on everyday life one need look no further than the spinoff technological innovations.

Getting to space is really hard. And on top of how hard it is, it is also extremely dangerous. When humans get into rockets to launch into orbit, essentially they’re strapping themselves to a stick of dynamite and hoping that all goes according to plan. Many brave souls have been lost trying to get to space and some of the most noted and costly were the Challenger and Columbia Shuttle disasters. Because of the danger and degree of difficulty, NASA engineers are constantly attempting to innovate and invent better, safer, and more efficient ways of accomplishing the same thing. This saves money, energy, and most importantly– lives. NASA employs the most elite scientific brains on the planet and when they all work on the problem of getting to space, the sheer amount of technologies produced that civilization utilizes today is shocking. Artificial limbs, heart pumps, anti-icing systems, highway safety grooves, chemical detection, firefighter gear, freeze drying tech, solar energy, water purification, memory foam, and mammogram improvements– just to name a few. These are just among the many technologies that were directly invented or improved and innovated upon by NASA. What is truly staggering is to realize that the entire global economy has been enabled by and hinges on the fact that we have a space-based infrastructure.

With the Russian launch of Sputnik in 1957, a new age of space-based infrastructure was born. America responded to Sputnik with a satellite of their own in Explorer 1 with special instruments to detect cosmic rays. Another mission, Echo 1, was the first communications satellite and was some freaky hybrid of balloon and satellite. Its only job was to be a surface with which to bounce a signal back to Earth. After project Echo, a flurry of telecommunications satellites were thrown into various orbits enabling easy and nearly instantaneous communication with anyone anywhere on the planet. In the present day there are thousands of man-made object orbiting Earth and because of the magic telecommunication powers they provide us, they can all be tracked on a nifty website called Stuff in Space. In fact, the quantity of these objects is so large, that it can aptly be labeled “space junk”. As the movie Gravity can attest, every single one of these objects is traveling around the Earth at tens of thousands of miles an hour.

But an often overlooked benefit of our space infrastructure is the vast amount of meteorological data available to anyone at the touch of a finger. Weather prediction was largely hit and miss before the space age with any and all predictions based on Earth-based instruments and less than instantaneous communication. But now armed with communications satellites, NASA turned next to meteorological satellites before it ever launched a person into space. On April 1, 1960, TIROS 1 was launched in an effort to determine whether or not it was practical to utilize space for meteorology. During its three months mission, TIROS 1 took over 22,000 pictures of cloud cover. Needless to say, NASA found it very practical to make weather satellites because currently, I can open an app on my phone that shows live information, much of which can only be gathered with space infrastructure. In fact, these meteorological and climatological satellites serve a crucial role in understanding the impacts of climate change. But perhaps most importantly, these weather satellites save lives. The summer of 2015 saw the biggest and strongest hurricane the Western Hemisphere has ever recorded that was going to make landfall in Mexico. Hurricane Patricia had sustained winds in excess of 200mph which are wind speeds typically only made in EF5 tornadoes. It also had the lowest barometer measurements ever recorded in a tropical cyclone at 880 millibars. Miraculously, however, no one died. How can this be when even lesser hurricanes and typhoons leave nothing but death and destruction in their trail? With a bit of luck and preparedness, Mexico dodged a cannonball. But an absolutely crucial part of that preparedness was the fact that we knew exactly how bad the hurricane was and the available information escalated the necessity of mass evacuation. How curious it is then, that the lives saved from a crisis “down here”, owe a great deal of thanks to the NASA engineers who, 60 years ago, believed so passionately that the future was “up there”.

Not only are lives saved but the planet spared because of the efforts of NASA. There are myriad technologies that have been created or improved, like solar panels, insulation, or LEDs, that have increased the efficiencies of our infrastructure and dampened human impact on the planet. But to stop at spin-off technologies is to miss the greater part of NASA’s positive impact on man’s relationship with Earth and Nature. Because it is only when mankind first sends human emissaries to the nebulous reaches of orbit and beyond that something truly phenomenal happens in our collective psyche. For the duration of this paper, I will focus on manned space flight and its effects on mankind’s relationship with and perception of Earth. And manned space exploration comes in perhaps only two varieties: Earth Orbit and Beyond Earth Orbit. So I’ll look at the first and then the latter.

On April 12, 1961, the first man to ever go into space and orbit the Earth is a Russian named Yuri Alexeyevich Gagarin. His experience was largely colored by the excitement and rush of being a test pilot. He was overcome by the seeming closeness of the stars and said that “the point was not the distance…but the principle. Mankind had overcome the force of Earth’s gravity and gone out into space”. The first American in space was Alan Shepard a little under a month after Yuri’s flight. He describes his first experience looking out the periscope on the space capsule, “I had been well briefed on what to expect, and one of the last things I had done… Before suiting up was to study….some special maps which showed me the view I would get… But no one could be briefed well enough to be completely prepared for the astonishing view that I got”. And finally we get a description of just what it is they’re seeing from John H. Glenn Jr., the fifth person in space–

“I witnessed my first sunset over the Indian Ocean, and it was a beautiful display of vivid colors. The sun is perfectly round and it gives off an intense, clear light which is more bluish-white than yellow,… then just as the sun starts to sink into the bright horizon, it seems to flatten out a little… [And] as the sun get lower and lower, a black shadow moves across the Earth until the entire surface that you can see is dark except for the bright band of light along the horizon…. It is a fabulous display.”

These cosmonauts and astronauts are witnessing the Earth for the first time as no other human has. From 100,000 miles up and moving faster than a speeding bullet, the Earth is seen as it actually is rather than as we have perceived it to be. One orbit takes approximately 90 minutes and fluctuates depending on how far away from the planet you are. In a timespan shorter than some movies, these men see nearly every continent on Earth pass under their gaze. Geographical lines are nowhere to be found and instead are replaced by the raw and vibrant surface of the planet as it is. The experience is reportedly quite profound on most astronauts perceptions of themselves and the Earth and in some ways revolutionizes the foundations of their identity.

It has been coined as the Overview Effect by both astronauts, writers, and philosophers alike. In his book of the same name, Frank White defines it as “the cognitive shift in awareness… [upon] seeing firsthand the reality of the Earth in space, which is immediately understood to be a tiny, fragile ball of life, “hanging in the void”, shielded and nourished by a paper-thin atmosphere”. It comes with a profound sense of awe and understanding at the interconnection of all life and the wholeness of the planet. And mankind’s dependence on the health of the Earthwide ecosystem becomes self-evident from space. Shuttle astronaut Jeff Hoffman has said, “you go outside on a clear day and it’s The Big Blue Sky, it’s like it goes on forever and how can we possibly put enough stuff into it to fill it up with things that really change it and yet you see it from space and it’s this thin line which is just barely hugging the surface of the planet”. This idea is colloquially known as “Spaceship Earth” and it views the planet as the only properly habitable and large spaceship hurtling through space with nothing around it for millions of miles but the emptiness of space.

Frank White calls the sudden and impactful realization that the Earth is a sphere “hanging in space” and that it is part of a larger solar system that orbits the sun as the Copernican Perspective. And perhaps the most important part of this shift of view is the falling away of the imaginary boundaries and borders that have been drawn on our globes. Mankind has divided itself countless ways but from space, all the divisions dissolve as it becomes apparent that the Earth is one complete and interdependent system. Gemini and Apollo astronaut Michael Collins says he truly believes that taking the political leaders of the planet into orbit would fundamentally change the way our world is governed. They would see the world turning serenely while it ignored our borders and continued to show a united and whole surface that cries for a unified treatment. He goes on to say that the view from 100,000 miles would be invaluable in getting people to work together

“by causing them to realize that the planet we share unites in a way far more basic and far more important than differences in skin color or religion or economic system. The pity of it is that so far the view… has been the exclusive property of a handful of test pilots, rather than world leaders who need this new perspective, or poets who might communicate it to them”.

Time and time again as I’ve read the experiences of astronauts and cosmonauts who have ventured into orbit and beyond, they are shocked and impressed by the experiential revelation of things they already knew intellectually. The wholeness and completeness of Earth and mankind’s place on it is already written in textbooks all over the world. But to see it; that would be something else entirely.

But the orbital Gemini missions were just preparatory flights while NASA geared up for Apollo which would take astronauts beyond Earth to the Moon. And it is from the Apollo missions that some astronauts experiences begin to be couched in language more akin to spirituality and deep meditation. Pilots who have experienced both Earth Orbital and Beyond Earth Orbit missions have stated that the two are different beasts entirely. With the first, the Earth is overpoweringly immense and is all one can focus on. But as the Apollo capsules sped towards the Moon, the Earth continually grows smaller until it is no bigger than the Moon is from Earth. One of the most unique experiences was had by the late astronaut Edgar Mitchell. While gazing back at the Earth from the capsule had something of a spiritual/meditative revelation about the nature of God, spirit, consciousness, and the universe. When he returned to Earth he reached out to a local University to help understand just what it was he experienced. They responded that in ancient Buddhist writings the experience of Savikalpa Samadhi was nearest to what Mitchell described. It is the highest state of spiritual consciousness second only to complete Nirvana. In Sanskrit, the words Savikalpa Samadhi mean that one’s identity and consciousness dissolve into Brahman, or the Universe. Mitchell’s experience, while being uniquely situated is not the only experience of divinity had among Apollo astronauts. A few have said that they’ve never felt closer to their Creator in all their lives. And venturing into the even more bizarre, astronaut Andrew Chaikin believed that God was guiding him to specific lunar rocks to collect for sampling.

However it’s situated and no matter what language it’s described in, the impact of viewing Earth from outside has forever changed humanity.  On Christmas Eve of 1968 aboard Apollo 8, astronauts Frank Borman, Jim Lovell, and William Anders turned their live broadcast camera back towards Earth and captured perhaps the most powerful and iconic image of all time: Earthrise. Situated just above the ghostly lunar horizon, Earth hangs half illuminated in space no bigger than a thumbnail. The ever poetic Carl Sagan said, “We may have found that perspective just in time, just as our technology threatens the habitability of our world. Whatever the reason we first mustered the Apollo program, however mired in Cold War nationalism it was, the inescapable recognition of the unity and fragility of the Earth is its clear and luminous dividend, the unexpected gift of Apollo.

It would perhaps be too bold to say that the Earth-centered environmental movement of the United States in the 60s is owed entirely to the audacity of NASA’s vision and accomplishments, but it would be foolish to consider the two movements in isolation. In fact, it is the same Earthrise photo that would be used as the symbol for many of these movements. Matching up the dates of the books and organizations that were born during this time with the lunar achievements becomes rather eye-opening. On May 25, 1961, President Kennedy delivered his Moon Shot speech to Congress. In September that same year, Silent Spring by Rachel Carson was published which decried the use of chemicals and pesticides and would later become a pivotal piece of the environmentalist ideology. The World Wildlife Fund was also established in 1961 and other organizations such as the Environmental Defense Fund, Friends of the Earth, Natural Resources Defense Council, and Greenpeace were founded through the next decade. As stated above, Christmas Eve of 1968 is the Apollo 8 picture Earthrise is made during a live broadcast to the entire world. In 1969, peace activist John McConnell proposed during a UNESCO conference a day to honor the Earth– Earth Day– which would first be celebrated and participated in by many astronauts on April 22, 1970. And the Whole Earth Catalog was published many times from 1968-72 bearing the Earthrise photo as its cover. For the first time, the entire Earth as a complete and whole system had captured the hearts and minds of the people.

The United States and the World responded. 1963, the Limited Nuclear Test Ban Treaty was signed by the US, UK, and the Soviet Union. 1969 was the National Environmental Policy Act; 1970, the Clean Air Act; 1972, the Clean Water Act and Marine Mammal Protection Act; 1973, the Endangered Species Act; and in 1987 and through to the present we get the first international protocols and agreements to combat Climate Change. An overwhelming amount of National and State Parks were created in the years since 1961 than ever had preceded it.

All during the Environmental Movement, the eyes of the world were pointed up to the stars and beyond. And the sights seen, technologies miraculously engineered, and cultural heroes created have had a tremendous impact on the world we find ourselves in today. And this isn’t just an economic or philosophical impact, but an environmental and planetary impact. To quote Dr. Tyson one last time, “NASA, as best as I can judge, is a force of nature like none other”. Due to the wide-ranging environmental and natural benefits NASA has produced, it’s almost poetic to describe NASA as also being a force of nature. Their chief concern is how to leave the planet and they wind up being instrumental to an age of environmental consciousness. Only perhaps in cathedrals and great temples of spirituality has an organization lit such a fire of inspiration in the hearts of mankind in one moment, only to humble and make pause the next. That is the legacy and gift of NASA– to inspire and uplift us while also showing us how fragile and delicate our situation is. I’ll end with the great words of Carl Sagan,

Look again at that dot. That’s here. That’s home. That’s us. On it everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives… There is perhaps no better demonstration of the folly of human conceits than this distant image of our tiny world. To me, it underscores our responsibility to deal more kindly with one another, and to preserve and cherish the pale blue dot, the only home we’ve ever known.”




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