The World Through a Looking Glass

Looking through the cupola windows on Space Station, it’s only naturalto reflect upon who we are and where we fit into the world below. Likesomething out of Alice in Wonderland, this orbital lookingglass can be both a window through which to observe the jeweled sphereof Earth and a mirror that (sometimes, depending on your viewing angle)shows you a translucent reflection of yourself superimposed on theplanet.

From orbit, the more you know about our planet, the more you can see.You see all the geological features described in textbooks. You seefault zones, moraines, basins, ranges, impact craters, dikes, sills,braided channels, the strike and dip of layered rocks, folding,meanders, oxbow lakes, slumps, slides, mud flows, deltas, alluvial fans,glaciers, karst topography, cirques, tectonic plates, rifts zones,cinder cones, crater lakes, fossil sea shores, lava flows, volcanicplumes, fissures, eruptions, dry lakes, inverted topography, lattericsoils, and many more.

You see clouds of every description and combination: nimbus, cumulus,stratus, nimbo-cumulus, nimbo-stratus, cirrus, thunderheads, andtyphoons, sometimes with clockwise rotation, sometimes withcounter-clockwise. You notice patterns: clouds over cold oceans lookdifferent than clouds over warm oceans. Sometimes the continents are allcloud-covered, so you have no recognizable landmass to help you gaugewhere you are. If you see a crisscross of jet contrails glistening inthe sun above the clouds, you know you are over the United States.

Lightning storms flash like gigantic fireflies looking for mates halfa continent away. You see patterns on the ocean surface, swirls andvortices on large scales, wave diffraction patterns around capes,solitary waves forming long lines out in the middle of nowhere, andrivers that look like they are spilling milk chocolate into turquoiseoceans.

You see light-scattering phenomena of all kinds—at sunrise, atsunset, across the terminator, 16 times a day. You see crepuscular rays,forward reddened lobes, off-axis blue lobes, and corona halos. Withbinoculars you can count six distinct layers in the atmosphere, with theouter one seemingly fading into fuzzy blackness.

The aurora is nothing short of occipital ecstasy. It is alwaysmoving, always changing, and like snowflakes, no two displays are thesame. The glowing red and green forms meander like celestial amoebascrawling across some great petri dish. One time our orbit took usthrough the center of an auroral display. It was as if we were in aglowing fog of red and green. Had we been shrunk down and inserted intothe tube of a neon sign? It looked like it was just on the other side ofthe windowpane. I wanted to reach out and touch, but of course Icouldn’t. Afterwards, I had to clean nose prints off of the window.

You catch an occasional meteor while looking down at Earth.You see stars and planets in oblique views, next to Earth’s limb. Andthey do not twinkle. Perchance you might spot a ragged shadow from atotal solar eclipse projected onto Earth. Amazing, it looks just like itdoes in the textbooks! You have a godlike view of the finer details ofshadowy projections onto spherical bodies. You see space junk orbitingnearby. Sometimes it flickers due to an irregularity, catching light asit rotates. An overboard water dump produces a virtual blizzard in thesurrounding vacuum. Like strangers passing in the night, you see othersatellites flash brilliantly for a few seconds, then fade into oblivion.

Jungles are the darkest land features you can observe in fullsunlight. They are so dark that you need to open your camera lens toobtain a proper exposure. If there are clouds partly shrouding yourview, you can be fooled into thinking you are over the ocean. Only whenyou notice rivers with braided channels and meandering loops ofchocolate brown do you realize that it is jungle and not water.Farmland, rich with vibrant crops, is different. Farmland is bright,much brighter than the jungles. Here nature is giving us a clue as tothe efficiency of light capture by plants.

The impact of humanity on Earth is humbling from orbit. Our greatestcities appear to the bare eye as minor gray smudges on the edges ofcontinents—they could be the fingerprints of Atlas, from the last timehe handled the globe. They are hardly distinguishable from volcanic ashflow or other geologic features. If you didn’t know it was a city, itwould be difficult to conclude it was the result of human design. Underthe scrutiny of the telephoto lens, things appear different. Like antsmoving crumbs of dirt, we are slowly changing our world. You realizethat Earth will do just fine, with or without us. We are wedded to thisplanet, for better or for worse, until mass extinction do us part.

Cities at nightare different from their drab daytime counterparts. They present a mostspectacular display that rivals a Broadway marquee. And cities aroundthe world are different. Some show blue-green, while others showyellow-orange. Some have rectangular grids, while others look like afractal-snapshot from Mandelbrot space.

Patterns in the countryside are different in Europe, North America,and South America. In space, you can see political boundaries that showup only at night. As if a beacon for humanity, Las Vegas is truly thebrightest spot on Earth. Cities at night may very well be the mostbeautiful unintentional consequence of human activity.

This looking glass incites your mind to ponder the abstract. Throughthe window, you explore the world. In the mirror, you reflect upon yourplace within it and the reasons we explore. Is it fundamentally aboutfinding new places to live and new resources to use? Or is it aboutexpanding our knowledge of the universe? Either way, exploration seemsfundamental to our survival as a species. After all, if the dinosaurshad explored space and colonized other planets, they would still bealive today.

20 thoughts on “The World Through a Looking Glass”

  1. Nicely written, astonomy is a form of poetry in motion. All ancient cultures knew this & used it greatly. In space you have a unique viewpoint.
    What was ignored was the ocean depths along w/ how the contenents moved & great cities sank below the surface, knowledge vahished & forgotten.
    In the future NASA should work more w/ NOAA. There is more we don’t understand under the sea then in space in my opinion. We need a unique viewpoint from “the depths” also.
    Greatest science discovery’s might low just miles below us not light years away…
    Best Regards.. MSE Engineer

  2. Glad the docking of the Progress . Hope you’ll reeived some fresh? fruit. How are the spiders doing?

  3. Do you feel more spiritual looking down at the earth? Have you seen any UFO’s? And lastly, what would be the first thing you want treat when you come home?


  4. Where’s the video of earth from 200 miles up, where we could see storms and contrails and auroras moving? All you’ve given is a few scattered photos, half of which are of places light Mongolia seen at noon, that look like nothing more than a large swath of dirt:(
    I feel that you as the steward of our space ambitions, have severely dropped the ball. The best I ever find now is CG “Artist’s Renditions”, or false color images, or a few black and white and BORIIIIING images from Mars:( I mean my god! Would it really have been so difficult to strap a 1080p COLOR camcorder (WITH AUDIO!) to the two rovers?! Because THAT would’ve blown me away, THAT would’ve sent me running to my congressman demanding that they continue to fund you!

  5. Don, I look at your pictures and your accomplishments, and think how your mom and dad where ever they are must be real proud of you. Your mother was a wonderful artist and photographer, and your dad a physician and scientist. I am proud to have known you when we were both kids. Good luck to you.

  6. Thanks, Don for putting it all in a larger perspective. You write beautifully and made me feel like I was up there seeing it all in its magnificence. Wow!

  7. Amazing Descriptions. I can only imagine. I come close whenever I fly as I always try for a window seat. I’m a map freak. From what you say, it sounds like the jungle is one voracious photon eater. I,ve always felt the answer to our energy needs rises every morning .

    Thank you,


  8. I TRULY appreciate the fascinating descriptions!!! However, I believe that the last sentence is very problematic and unscientific; the possibility of dinosaurs creating rockets which could take them to other planets and the certainty that they would have survived there all this time are in the world of fantasy. I am in favor of the space program and exploring as far as we can, by the way!

  9. Your descriptive tour in orbital view of our rich, varied world of endless wonders, gives one a glimpsing sense of what those of you privileged to have had ISS’s “godlike view” of our home-world were able to see and experience. Passing through a surreal Auroral displays, studying ocean patterns, surveying land-mosaics, and watching over panoramic shows of planetary forces and energies at work! Wow!

    It would be interesting to read impressions and thoughts, as here, of several of the men and women who have seen such things as described. To read their reflections about the world, man, and life, etc. Have some of them, have all of them, from whatever nationality they had hailed, been somehow changed, if not in outlook and perspective alone, then in lives as well, by what they have seen: man’s historic abode turning in time. Visions through the “looking glass”, and the impressions on the heart and from the mind.

    I recall reading that some Apollo Astronauts were profoundly affect by their other-world experiences (but that was from a greater, more profoundly-impacting distance.

  10. Thank you so much for your tremendous work in Space, and allowing the interested few, unbeleivable views of our incredible plant. Thanks also for allowing the interested to be involved in your work with your question time with students while in Space. Keep up the great work and always safe travels to and from work. You do have the most fascinating communte to work – compared to the rest of us here on earth. Thanks again, from an “always wanted to be an Astronaut”, regular joe. Cheers

  11. truly astounding, your words inspire me to better myself. a single tear running slowly down my cheek as i read your are a very lucky man and i would do anything to have your viewpoint. i am just speechless your words are beautifully stunning and conjure the most stunning images in my mind. please can i come live at your house 😉

  12. que imagenes grandiosas ojala un dia yo pueda ir auque sea a la estacion internacional a conocer saludos autronautas

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