Astronaut Jeff Hoffman Reflects on the Impact of Space Travel on Perspective

Hall of Fame Astronaut and Senior Technical Advisor to Space Perspective, Jeff Hoffman, talked with Jane about his time in space and the impact that had on him.

I always remember my first Extra Vehicular Activity on my first flight. After going out the airlock I floated over to the toolbox, face down towards the Shuttle and thinking to myself, “This is really like in the water tank, that is really good training.” I put all the tools on my tool carrier, and I turned around, and there was Earth and the black sky. “I don’t think we are in Kansas anymore, Toto,” I thought. What a revelation. You see the curvature of the Earth, and all of a sudden you get that flash of what I call planetary consciousness, what some call the overview effect.

Flying over areas I was not familiar with was always fascinating, like the Arabian Peninsula, and seeing endless sand dunes as far as the eye could see. The colors of the Caribbean are spectacular. Sunsets and sunrises are something that you need to be prepared for. Up above most of the atmosphere it’s incredible to see them with the black sky. Those were the days when we used film in our cameras, and I’ve been told that when people finished developing the film, and saw that half of the frames were sunrises or sunsets they said, “Oh, Hoffman must have been on that flight!” Seeing clouds, big cumulous clouds from the top was fascinating. Joni Mitchel’s song, “I’ve looked at clouds from both sides now,” was one of my favorites.

Then of course there are the less pleasant aspects of seeing human impacts on the planet. Flying over regions where there was so much smoke from coal fires that you couldn’t see the ground.

Everybody asks if the experience changed me. I’m an astronomer and I know the Earth is a planet. But it’s the difference between knowing something intellectually and actually experiencing it. Read all you want about the geology of the Grand Canyon and look at pictures of it, when you go there and stand at the bottom of the canyon looking up through hundreds of millions of years of geology, it’s an overwhelming experience. That is what it was like. We were well prepared. I had a good idea of what I was going to be looking for, but seeing pictures and knowing something intellectually is just not the same as experiencing it for yourself.

Humanity has advanced through geographic and scientific exploration to expand human knowledge and understanding. Exploring space also expands human experience and helps us appreciate what it means to be inhabitants of a planet in our solar system. In one or two hundred years from now we are going to make the Moon part of the Earth’s economic sphere, just like we’ve made Earth orbit part of the Earth’s economic sphere now. Just like you most appreciate your home after you have left it for a while, leaving the Earth is one of the best ways to appreciate what our planet does for us.

Outside the window there is an environment that is not survivable for human beings. And in fact, most of the universe is very hostile to any form of life. We spend our life in a very hospitable place here on earth. It gives you an increased appreciation of how unique the earth is and what we get from it. Ask people if we live on a finite planet, and intellectually they will say, yes. But when you actually go up and experience looking at the planet… The Explorers who go will be very fortunate. If they can internalize the experience, and talk about it with others, the media, that’s important. They are the ambassadors of Spaceship Earth.