After years of planning I was about to go on a trip. The night before the foray, I was surprised when a business colleague asked to hold on to my passport in case I landed in the wrong place.
Strange, I thought, since I was only going to Florida.
This jaunt would be different: I was going into orbit on the Space Shuttle Discovery.
If it turned out that our rocket had engine problems during launch, then there was the possibility that we would have to swoop into one of the emergency landing sites in Africa. Someone from NASA would have to come to our rescue, bringing our passports and immunization records so we could get home…if we even survived.
Journeys into space were unlike any other.
Of course, they were “business” trips with many tasks to accomplish, but they did afford some time for “sightseeing”. Looking at Earth from 250 miles above while speeding along at 17,000 miles per hour provided a completely different perspective on our world. We had the chance to view Earth on a vast scale.
Vestiges of history would drift below us. The sheltered bays of the east coast of the United States were reminders of where the early explorers found safe harbor from which to start their exploration of the New World. And out my window one morning? Bible stories galore! There was the land of the Pharaohs—Egypt and the Nile, then the desert of Moses’s wanderings on the Sinai Peninsula, and to the east was Israel, the Promised Land.
Some of the wondrous vistas we see from ground level are unimpressive when seen from out in space. The mighty Grand Canyon is only a long crack in the landscape. Mount Everest is indistinguishable from all the surrounding snow-capped mountains.
Sometimes events converged perfectly to capture unique photos. The location had to be in daylight and the sky cloudless. The Shuttle had to pass directly over the area of interest. The photographer had to be ready with the right camera and lens in hand as the target whizzed by. My husband and fellow astronaut, Robert “Hoot” Gibson, had such fortuitous moment on his fourth mission. He captured for the first time a picture of Paris, the City of Lights, from space.
On this grand scale the Ile de la Cité is an island in the winding Seine River. On the shore to the right are lined up the Louvre, the Tuileries Gardens, and the Champs Elysees leading to the starburst of roads around Arc de Triomphe. The iconic Eiffel Tower is too dark and pointy to be seen. The great forest to the west is the Bois de Boulogne.
My friend Stew Ross knows all these Parisian sites and their role in history on a smaller and more intimate scale. I’m hoping he will show me this city from ground level someday!
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