Single Room, Earth View
America's first woman in space describes the beauty of Earth from orbit.
- By Sally Ride
- Air & Space magazine, July 2012
(Page 2 of 5)
Mountain ranges, volcanoes, and river deltas appeared in salt-and-flour relief, all leading me to assume the role of a novice geologist. In such moments, it was easy to imagine the dynamic upheavals that created jutting mountain ranges and the internal wrenchings that created rifts and seas. I also became an instant believer in plate tectonics; India really is crashing into Asia, and Saudi Arabia and Egypt really are pulling apart, making the Red Sea wider. Even though their respective motion is really no more than mere inches a year, the view from overhead makes theory come alive.
Spectacular as the view is from 200 miles up, the Earth is not the awe-inspiring “blue marble” made famous by the photos from the moon. From space shuttle height, we can’t see the entire globe at a glance, but we can look down the entire boot of Italy, or up the East Coast of the United States from Cape Hatteras to Cape Cod. The panoramic view inspires an appreciation for the scale of some of nature’s phenomena. One day, as I scanned the sandy expanse of Northern Africa, I couldn’t find any of the familiar landmarks—colorful outcroppings of rock in Chad, irrigated patches of the Sahara. Then I realized they were obscured by a huge dust storm, a cloud of sand that enveloped the continent from Morocco to the Sudan.
Since the space shuttle flies fairly low (at least by orbital standards; it’s more than 22,000 miles lower than a typical TV satellite), we can make out both natural and human-made features in surprising detail. Familiar geographical features like San Francisco Bay, Long Island, and Lake Michigan are easy to recognize, as are many cities, bridges, and airports. The Great Wall of China is not the only manmade object visible from space.
The signatures of civilization are usually seen in straight lines (bridges or runways) or sharp delineations (abrupt transitions from desert to irrigated land, as in California's Imperial Valley). A modern city like New York doesn't leap from the canvas of its surroundings, but its straight piers and concrete runways catch the eye—and around them, the city materializes. I found Salina, Kansas by spotting its long runway amid the wheat fields near the city. Over Florida, I could see the launch pad at Cape Canaveral where we had begun our trip, and the landing strip, where we would eventually land.
Some of civilization's more unfortunate effects on the environment are also evident from orbit. Oil slicks glisten on the surface of the Persian Gulf, patches of pollution- damaged trees dot the forests of central Europe. Some cities look out of focus, and their colors muted, when viewed through a pollutant haze. Not surprisingly, the effects are more noticeable than they were the decade before.