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Review: Back to Earth


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Back to Earth: What Life in Space Taught Me About Our Home Planet—And Our Mission to Protect It
by Nicole Stott
Seal Press, 2021
hardcover, 304 pp., illus.
ISBN 978-1-5416-7504-9
US$30

Most people in the space industry have heard of the Overview Effect, the change in perspective about the Earth that comes from seeing it from space. It got renewed attention earlier this month when William Shatner went on a Blue Origin suborbital spaceflight, and talked about the experience for what seemed like longer than the flight itself (see “Black ugliness and the covering of blue: William Shatner’s suborbital flight to ‘death’”, The Space Review, October 18, 2021). The topic is likely to come up among some of the astronaut panels at this week’s International Astronautical Congress in Dubai as well.

It can be difficult, though, for those of us who have not been to space to appreciate the experience. Even astronauts struggle to put it into words. “No picture, no video, and no conversation with others who had flown before could have prepared me for what I saw with my own eyes and felt with my own soul,” writes former NASA astronaut Nicole Stott of the first time she saw the Earth from orbit in the introduction of her new book Back to Earth. She likens it to a light bulb “spattered with all of the colors we know to Earth to be” that is almost too bright to look at. “All the Earth’s colors glowed with an iridescence and translucence I’d never seen before.”

“No picture, no video, and no conversation with others who had flown before could have prepared me for what I saw with my own eyes and felt with my own soul,” Stott writes. “All the Earth’s colors glowed with an iridescence and translucence I’d never seen before.”

That experience made her appreciate something she considered simple and profound: we live on a planet, “and the only border that matters is the thin blue line of atmosphere that protects us all.” That becomes the jumping-off point for her book, which used her spaceflight and other life experiences to illustrate the importance of taking care of the Earth—of being a crewmember of “Spaceship Earth” just as she was a crewmember of the International Space Station.

Stott organizes the book around several lessons for readers to follow that are based on that understanding. These are not specific things to do but more like mindsets to adopt, like “live like crew, not like a passenger” and “go slow to go fast” (that is, the most progress comes from making deliberate, planned actions, rather than flailing around.) She discusses those lessons with her own experiences as well as interviews with others, including those involved with the environment. The book is not a memoir, although she does bring up many anecdotes from her time before, during, and after NASA.

The book, targeted at general audiences, makes clear the importance space can play beyond simply offering that new perspective of the Earth. She discusses the research being done on the ISS that has applications on Earth, efforts by companies and organizations to use satellites to track environmental change, and even laments that not enough funding is supporting work on space-based solar power, “one of the most promising technologies” to end dependence on fossil fuels.

Even in the wildest imaginations of commercial spaceflight evangelists, most people won’t get a chance to experience the Overview Effect on even a suborbital spaceflight for the foreseeable future. She argues you don’t need to go to space to experience what she calls an “Earthrise moment,” which she describes as any moment that offers “a sense of awe and wonder that inspires you in a life-changing way” and better appreciate your role as part of the crew of a spaceship that could use some help. But a trip to space, though, as Shatner discovered, wouldn’t hurt.


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