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For Earth Day, a retired astronaut recalls the lessons learned in space

A female astronaut in a blue jump suit stands in front of a painting of a wave-shaped formation in various shades of blue
Nicole Stott with her artwork "The Wave," inspired by a chain of islands seen from the International Space Station

This Saturday is Earth Day, a celebration begun in the United States in 1970 at the cusp of the modern environmental movement and now recognized by millions around the world. But very few people have the chance to actually see the Earth in its entirety. One of those people is retired NASA astronaut Nicole Stott. KNAU’s Melissa Sevigny spoke with her earlier this year about the perspective of Earth that’s only possible from space.

Nicole Stott: We try and prepare as much as we can for what we think it’s going to be like…. But I think the thing that really impressed me from the first time looking at it and every time afterwards was just how crystal clear everything is. Just this glowing, colorful—all the colors you know Earth to be colors, this iridescence kind of translucence to it. I knew it would be pretty and colorful, but I didn’t expect it to be that intensely glowing, I guess. And it’s against the blackest black I think I have ever seen before in my life.

Melissa Sevigny: I’m really curious to hear about your experiences both going to space and then going to the ocean. What’s the same about that and what’s difference about those two experiences?

Nicole Stott: The reason why we go undersea to prepare to go to space, is that it really is the closest analog to what it’s like to be in space…. You know what we do there, getting there, living there even for a short period of time, coming home safely, it’s all a really complex thing, the science, the relationships, all of it. For me, I was really impressed by the simple lessons… We live on a planet. We all know that. We’re all Earthlings; the only border that matters is the thin blue line of atmosphere that’s protecting us all. And that absolutely our most important role is to be behaving like crewmates and not passengers on spaceship Earth.

Melissa Sevigny: I’ve heard it said that we know less about the bottom of our oceans than we do about our solar system. Do you think that’s true?

Nicole Stott: No. [Laughter]. I don’t. I appreciate that sentiment, though: here we’ve got this body of water that gives us life that is right here with us on Earth, and we don’t know a lot. There is so much more explore. I think about all the places on Earth that are otherworldly in some way, and the awe and wonder that comes from that, in just appreciating our place in space. But I think even from the standpoint of the solar system, it’s at least on par. I don’t think it’s so different. Then when you start thinking, okay this solar system in this galaxy that’s in this universe that’s in this kind of mindboggling thing. I don’t even know how to describe it—entity. I have memories of looking at National Geographic map of the known universe, and it’s this oval drawing on a white sheet of paper. I think even as a kid of ten, I was like, you go for the dot on the map that says where you are, and then you get to the edge: What’s all this white stuff? Again, I think it’s the kind of stuff that let’s us know more about who and where we are and how we should be behaving together on our planetary spaceship with each other.

Melissa Sevigny: If you had to pick one thing, what would you want to explore next?

Nicole Stott: I do want to explore more here on Earth… Especially a lot of the places I saw from space that I have never—you see them in a particular kind of way through the window of the spaceship. They’re very intriguing, ‘I need to go there.’ Like the place I painted from space, this little chain on island on the northern coast of Venezuela. I want to go there. I want to feel what it’s like to be in this place that looked like this wave painted on the ocean to me…. But the other place is the moon. I would love to go to the moon.

Melissa joined KNAU's team in 2015 to report on science, health, and the environment. Her work has appeared nationally on NPR and been featured on Science Friday. She grew up in Tucson, Arizona, where she fell in love with the ecology and geology of the Sonoran desert.