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One of the more hopeful results of human spaceflight has been the Overview Effect, when astronauts feel the awe in looking down at our home planet while orbiting above. NASA Astronaut Bob Hines details his experience earthgazing from the International Space Station in 2022.
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ERIC: From the Museum of Science in Boston, this is Pulsar, a podcast where we blast off for answers to the most fundamentally human questions we've ever gotten from our visitors. I'm your host, Eric. And if you're less than 23 years old, there have been humans in space your whole life. Most of these humans spend about six months at a time in rotating teams aboard the International Space Station, a massive science laboratory the size of a football field that orbits 250 miles above the surface of the Earth. Our visitors have many questions about living and working in space, including: what's it like to look down at our home planet? For the answer, I talked to Bob Hines, a NASA astronaut and pilot of the Crew-4 mission to the ISS in the summer of 2022. Bob, thanks for joining us on the podcast.
BOB: It's my pleasure. Thanks for having me.
ERIC: What's it like to just see the Earth from space?
BOB: Yeah, when I first got the space station, we were actually really busy. So it was about a whole day before I finally made it to the window. But once I got to the Cupola, which is a seven-window panoramic, looking-at-the-Earth location on the bottom of space station, it was amazing. The Earth is such a beautiful place and against the blackness of space, seeing the blues and the greens and the browns and the whites, it was amazing. And it's just jaw dropping to sit there and watch it, and it never got old through 170 days of being in space.
ERIC: So that window is really famous. Looking at the inside of the space station from video tours and stuff, it doesn't seem like there's a lot of other windows. Is that the only place where you can really look out?
BOB: So we have several places where there are windows, the Cupola is obviously the biggest and the most famous. We can fit all of us in there, we can fit three or four astronauts in there and share the experience together. We have another location called the WORF, the Window Observational Research Facility. And it is, I think it's an 18-inch window, very, very high optical quality. And so if we want to take really good pictures, that's where we go to do that. That is in the floor of the space station, usually covered up. And then a couple other modules have some small windows pointing in other directions. But they're not very good for taking pictures, but they're okay to look out of.
ERIC: It seems like a shame that there's not more windows, but I imagine it would be distracting. I mean, I get distracted by sitting here at the river and looking at the birds. So if you're trying to focus on a task and looking at, you know, the ocean and the storms going by.
BOB: Yeah, we get very, we're very focused on the jobs that we have to do. And so sometimes I actually went two or three days without looking out the window, which was surprising. I never thought that would be the case. But that definitely had an impact on my morale and my psychological state. And so I realized that and then went to the window, and just being able to look at the beautiful planet that we live on was incredible.
ERIC: Is it kind of one of those moments where you can decompress and center yourself and be like: I am in space.
BOB: Yes, every now and then we have to you know, we're working really hard all the time. And it's really helpful to just kind of step back and realize I'm in space, I get to float everywhere I go. And I get to go look out the window and see the Earth from outer space.
ERIC: Did you get that Overview Effect? We've heard from other astronauts for the last 50 years, you kind of see no borders and the whole earth and how fragile the atmosphere is. Did you get that sense of: we live on a planet and what a planet is?
BOB: The Overview Effect, I think, has a couple different manifestations for different people. I will say that almost all astronauts will say it reaffirms whatever they previously believed. As a Christian, and looking at everybody as being created equal, and our job as loving and respecting each other, it definitely reaffirmed that. But from a planet perspective and seeing the Earth from up there, that planet Overview Effect, and realizing how connected everything is all the system of systems that the planet is, was one of the things that really got driven home to me and how events in one part of the planet will affect affect others.
ERIC: Did you get any training on using cameras and long lenses and stuff to be able to take pictures of Earth?
BOB: We do lots of training on the different cameras that we have up there. And we're really fortunate to have a wide array of lenses and camera equipment. And to me, being able to take those pictures so that we have them recorded and we can share them with people and sharing them with the people who don't get to go to space was really important to me. So I really valued the opportunity to take those pictures, and then also the access to social media to put them out there and interact with people like me, who thought that they were really cool pictures and enjoyed seeing them.
ERIC: So when you look out the window, what kind of scale are you seeing? You're not seeing the whole earth because you're actually pretty close. But are you able to pick out, like, cities? How close can you see?
BOB: Yeah, so we can see cities. It was actually kind of interesting because we would have Google Earth sometimes up there, and you could zoom into the appropriate site to see it. But you can see cities, you can tell that the cities are there, you can see bridges across rivers and things like that. You're not seeing cars, you're not seeing people or anything like that. But you can definitely see where those cities are. And one of my favorite passes, was coming up from the Gulf of Mexico, flying over the East Coast, over the Atlantic, and then through Europe. And it was just one path that actually hit almost all the places I've lived in my entire life. And so it was like a slideshow of my life. It was just amazing. And whenever we would do that, I would make sure I'd rush to the Cupola to see that, you know, 15 minute pass, it was amazing.
ERIC: It's cool to be able to pick things out that you recognize. Did you ever look out the window and think: I have no idea where that is?
BOB: All the time. I would occasionally just look out the window and have no idea where we were. We thankfully have a little map. It's a fairly archaic moving map that will at least show us where on the planet we are. And then we can kind of pick that stuff out. But we were also fortunate to have a geologist on our expedition. And so I would always call Watty, Jessica Watkins, over and go: what is that? And: what's going on? And she would always have a story for me.
ERIC: So that was my next question. Did you ever get times where somebody else was like, you gotta come see this! Because there was a volcano going off, or a hurricane or something?
BOB: Very frequently, we would just call the other crew over because we would be in the Cupola and all we could say is 'wow, you guys got to see this'. And it would be aurora. Sometimes it would be a volcano that was smoldering. Sometimes it was cloud formations as they flow past islands, and you see the vortices coming off. All kinds of just spectacular things that were just different and unexpected. It was great to be able to share that with the rest of our group.
ERIC: Bob, thanks so much for telling us what it's like to be in space and look down at the Earth.
BOB: Thanks so much for having me here. It was great talking with you.
ERIC: The next time you're at the Museum of Science, visit our permanent exhibit To the Moon to get an idea of how astronauts live in space. And while you're home. Follow the museum on Instagram for lots more stories of Bob's journey to the space station. Until next time, keep asking questions.
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