by Mike Simmons

Our interplanetary emissaries – spacecraft we send to explore the Solar System – occasionally turn their gaze back at Spaceship Earth from the Moon, Mercury, Mars, Saturn, and beyond. Apollo 8’s iconic Earthrise was one of Earth’s first family portraits, with Earth rising above the lunar horizon. In Voyager’s Pale Blue Dot, proposed and made famous by Carl Sagan, Earth is nothing but a single pixel of color with no hint of features or inhabitants. Humbling, awe-inspiring, thought-provoking, these images strike a chord with all of humanity.

 Standing under a star-strewn sky gives us a similar feeling. The diffuse Milky Way and the pinpoint stars herald uncounted planets, perhaps many with beings viewing the heavens from their own planets. We imagine them as one race, so dissimilar from us that we could barely distinguish them from each other. In science fiction they are Vulcans, Wookies, or Vogons, depending only on the planet they call home. Nothing more.

Earthrise. Credit: NASA

As the story’s characters travel to those planets and space stations between them, we are Earthlings, humans, or Terrans. Nothing more, nothing less. It’s the same when our spacecraft show us the view of Earth from afar. As Sagan said of the Pale Blue Dot, “That’s here. That’s home. That’s us.” Terrans. Nothing more.

A visitor from Earth would no doubt learn the divisions those aliens used to differentiate between them. What would they based on? Place of origin, skin color, belief systems, or some physical characteristics? Whatever it was, it would destroy the illusion of a single planetary race. We can be sure an interplanetary tourist would have the same experience on a visit to Earth. We see ourselves as so different from each other, most likely in ways that are minor details to alien races.

Looking back at Earth from space, even for a brief interval, can cause a paradigm shift. A mere 250 miles above – a distance traveled by jet airliners near Earth’s surface in just 30 minutes – Earth is seen as a planet. Walls and borders are insignificantly small. Whole mountain ranges come into view. Oceans are great expanses. We see the whole forest, not just the trees. The vast becomes comprehensible, features each a part of something much bigger.

But on Earth we see our immediate surroundings. In cities, buildings limit our view to a block or two. On the plains we can see as far as the distant mountains or the local horizon. The ocean goes on forever, or so we’re told, as it disappears over the horizon as seen from the shore. There is no hint of what lies beyond, unseen. We see the trees but can’t visualize the whole forest.

Unless, of course, you look out at the rest of the Universe. You might catch a satellite, lit by twilight, crossing your sky, soon to cross the ocean, mountains, and continents. Maybe you’ll see the International Space Station where astronauts are watching the Sun set on your home. Or the Moon, where Earth’s Earthrise portrait was captured, a blotchy circle devoid of features to the unaided eye. The planets shine brightly from hundreds of millions of miles distant, just sparkles of light distinguished from the stars by ancient people only by their cryptic motions. A few patches of light signify much more; the birth of stars in a cloud of gas, or a galaxy so distant its light began its journey to Earth before our ancestors left the cradle of Africa.

Each of us has a window on the Universe, and that’s what both sets us apart and connects us. We look out from Spaceship Earth and see a Universe that seems to depend on where we are. We see the stars while others see the Sun. Like passengers on opposite sides of a bus looking at different sides of the street. But the Earth turns and the Universe sweeps past our view, on to the windows of others, and back to us a day later. We don’t all see the same view at any one time. But in time we share that view from the different windows with each other. Just as when we leave the planet and look back, we recognize ourselves as all in the same place, on Spaceship Earth.

We have labels for each other depending on what part of the ship we inhabit or the culture that evolved there. But when we look out from our windows at the sky we see we’re in the same place. Only the direction of our gaze is different. When the bus we’re riding on turns around we realize we’re just looking at different sides of the same street.

That’s what the images from space show us. Not countries or cultures, but just Earth. It’s not that we don’t see the boundaries or the features. From that distant view, boundaries are just irrelevant. There are Earthlings there. Nothing more.

After returning from six months in space, Ron Garan’s first thought when he saw the ground through the window of his Soyuz – sand and a few blades of grass – was “I’m home”. He had been within 250 miles of his home in Houston many times during his flight. But now, thousands of miles from Houston on the steppes of Khazakstan, he felt that he was home, on Spaceship Earth.

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Mike Simmons is the founder and president of Astronomers Without Borders. No stranger to organizing global programs, Mike was was co-chair of 100 Hours of Astronomy in the International Year of Astronomy 2009. Mike has been an amateur astronomer involved in public outreach and education for 40 years. - See more at: http://www.astronomerswithoutborders.org/321-awb-blog/dark/gam-2014-blog/2128-the-changing-face-of-astronomy.html#sthash.jW4dOAXR.dpuf

Mike Simmons is the founder and president of Astronomers Without Borders. No stranger to organizing global programs, Mike was was co-chair of 100 Hours of Astronomy in the International Year of Astronomy 2009. Mike has been an amateur astronomer involved in public outreach and education for 40 years.

Mike Simmons is the founder and president of Astronomers Without Borders. No stranger to organizing global programs, Mike was was co-chair of 100 Hours of Astronomy in the International Year of Astronomy 2009. Mike has been an amateur astronomer involved in public outreach and education for 40 years. - See more at: http://www.astronomerswithoutborders.org/321-awb-blog/dark/gam-2014-blog/2128-the-changing-face-of-astronomy.html#sthash.jW4dOAXR.dpuf