The View From Space

The View From Space

Our trip through the atmosphere was a bit bumpy, but the ride is nice and smooth now. There are four seats in our spacecraft, and Tom is sitting in the front seat next to our pilot. His name is William, but everyone calls him Bing. Julie and I are in the back seats.

We’re all wearing space suits to keep us warm and help us breathe, because the air up here is cold, and there’s very little oxygen in it.

Just Right by Mon Cochran
In our spacecraft we circled the Earth at 15,000 miles an hour.

“Tom, can you hear me?”

“Yes, I hear you, Grandpa. I’m still learning how to talk with this radio in my helmet.”

“I hear you too, Gramps!” That’s Julie beside me, talking through her own microphone.

“What did you think of that rocket ride up through the atmosphere?” I ask.

“Amazing! Awesome!” they answer together.

“It was a smoother ride than I expected,” I say to them. “Are you feeling okay?”

“I’m good,” says Julie. I can see her eyes sparkle through the clear visor on her helmet. “Me too,” says Tom. “But I was pretty nervous during takeoff.”

Bing has been busy firing little rockets, called thrusters, on the sides of the spacecraft to guide it into orbit around the Earth. Now he turns to look at Tom. “You’re my co-pilot on this trip,” he says, “and you did a fine job.”

“I was kind of nervous too,” I admit. “Bing, how much time do we have to look around up here?”
The pilot glances back at me. “I have another trip scheduled for this afternoon, so we need to head back soon.”

“All right.” I give him a thumbs-up. To the children I say, “Do you remember why we thought it would be a good idea to fly out into space?”

Tom is the first to answer. “We want to be able to see the Earth as one big living thing. To see the whole planet, we needed to fly away from it and then look back at it.”

Julie jumps in. “Right!” she says. “It’s because we want to learn more about why people and animals and plants can live on the Earth.”

“Okay,” I say. “Bing, can you turn this ship around so we can all take a good look?
“Sure,” he responds. “I’ll fire our thrusters to turn us so we’re facing toward Earth.” Bing presses a button on the console in front of him, and the spacecraft turns.

When Julie and Tom see our home planet for the first time, I hear them gasp with excitement and surprise. We all sit quietly for a moment, overwhelmed by the sight.

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This is what the Earth looks like from 850 miles out in space.

Julie is the first to find her voice. “Wowee! It’s so beautiful! I didn’t expect it to be so blue!”

“Me neither,” I say. “Why is it so blue, do you think?”

“Oceans. We’re seeing the oceans!” she answers. “It’s like you were telling us before. Oceans are one of Gaia’s organs, kind of like our heart and our blood. They are really important for life.”

“That’s right, Julie. And you’re going to become our ocean expert. From up here in space you can see that the oceans take up more of the Earth’s surface than anything else.”

Three quarters of the Earth is covered by oceans.

Tom is sitting quietly to my right, just drinking in the fantastic view. It looks like he’s thinking hard about what he is seeing. “I can see the ocean, and I can see some land,” he finally says. “The land looks like a big island in the water. From the shape it looks like North America. Oh, and I can see where it connects to South America!”

“Yes,” I answer. “Those islands are the continents. They’re the part of the Earth’s crust that sticks up out of the water. See the east coast of North America there, along the right-hand edge of the big island? That’s where our home city of Boston is. When you fly to Sweden to visit your cousins, the plane takes off to the right, past Cape Cod and over the Atlantic Ocean to Europe.

“Europe and Asia together are another big island,” I add. “Look carefully, and you can just see it, on the opposite side of the ocean.”

“What I don’t see is the atmosphere,” Tom continues, sounding a little puzzled. “We talked about how our atmosphere plays a big part in keeping us all alive. And we bumped through it right after blast-off from Earth. How come we can’t see it?”

Bing has been listening to our conversation—we all can hear what anyone says into the mics. “It’s hard to see the Earth’s atmosphere from this far away,” he explains. “We had to fly eight hundred and fifty miles out into space to get you a view of the whole Earth. That puts us in the outermost layer of our atmosphere. As we head home, you’ll see the other layers more clearly.”

“See the white fluffy stuff to the left of North America, and just above where Florida sticks down?” I add. “Those are clouds. They’re part of what makes the atmosphere—the layer closest to the Earth’s surface.”

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The clouds are in the lowest layer of the Earth’s atmosphere. We flew up into the dark blue layer.

Tom turns around and looks at me. I see another question in his eyes. He pauses for a minute, then asks quietly, “How bumpy will the ride down be? Will we bounce around as we fly through the atmosphere?”

Our pilot is the expert about spaceships returning to Earth. “We’ll shake for only about two minutes right at the end,” Bing says, making it sound normal. “The bottom layer of the atmosphere is thick, and that makes us bump around some. You’ll see the front of our craft get red, too. That’s because pushing through the thick air makes it heat up. But only for a minute or two.”

Bing fires a thruster rocket again and aims our ship on an angle that will carry us back into the atmosphere. Julie and Tom hold on tight to their armrests. For a half hour we glide smoothly toward the Earth, which gets bigger and bigger as we get closer and closer.

Suddenly the moon looms up in our window, coming right toward us and looking REALLY BIG as it pops up from behind the Earth. Both Tom and Julie jerk in their seats, and Julie grabs my arm. I’m startled too and shoot a glance over at Bing. He’s chuckling inside his helmet because, of course, he has seen the moon like this lots of times before.

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We were all really surprised when the moon suddenly popped into view.

Once we realize we’re not really flying close to the moon, we gaze at it more carefully. Half of it is in shadow, but on the sunny side we can clearly see craters and mountains.

“Tom,” Bing says, pointing in the direction we are flying, “now you can see the atmosphere more clearly. Do you see how there are layers?”

Tom doesn’t answer right away. “I get it,” he finally says. “That white we’re seeing at the edge of the Earth must be clouds. That’s the lowest layer, where the flying is bumpy. The light blue must be the layer we’re in now. And the dark blue is even higher—up where we were before, and where satellites fly around.”

“That’s right,” Bing nods. “Now we’re headed back down through those clouds. So brace yourselves, and we’ll be on the ground soon.”

A WEEK HAS PASSED SINCE our quick trip into space. Julie and Tom have finished their school year and are just starting their summer vacation with me on Cape Cod. They’ve taken the bus down from Boston to my house on Pleasant Bay, in the town of Orleans. It’s late June, and the water in the bay is finally warm enough for swimming.

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The Land and Waters around Pleasant Bay on Cape Cod
This is where I live on Cape Cod, and some of the places where we have fun.

The three of us have lots to talk about. We’re all still really excited about our amazing journey into the upper atmosphere. It’s hard to believe we traveled far enough up into the atmosphere to get a good look at the entire planet, but Tom and Julie have pictures to prove it.

After dinner on the day they arrive, we re-live our flight through their pictures, transferred from a CD to my computer. Tom got a good shot of the moon as it came out from behind the Earth, and some nice pictures of the clouds over the ocean just before we dropped back through the lower atmosphere.

Some Pictures from Our Space Flight
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Masses of clouds in the lower atmosphere below us.
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“Cloud towers” like these are places where storms are born.
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The sun shining on clouds, with layers of atmosphere above them.
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We flew over this hurricane on our way back to Earth.

Julie remembers that the scariest moment was when the moon appeared so suddenly. “I know the moon circles around us, around the Earth,” she says. “But it really surprised me when it popped up like that.”

“That’s because we were going toward it pretty fast,” I explain. “We were flying at about fifteen thousand miles an hour when we started our descent back to Earth.”

Tom, who has been flipping through his pictures on the computer screen, glances up at me, his eyes gleaming. “Wasn’t that just so cool?” he exclaims. “Fifteen thousand miles an hour! And Bing was so nice! He even let me steer our spaceship along the runway once we were back on the ground.”

A couple of minutes later he looks up from the moon picture on the screen. “I know the moon circles around the Earth,” he says. “They told us in science class that it takes about a month to go all the way around. And at the same time, the Earth is going around the sun. I think it takes about a year for us to go around the sun once. Plus, our Earth is spinning, turning all the way around once every twenty-four hours. I get dizzy trying to imagine all those things happening at the same time!”

“Me too,” Julie agrees.

Actually, I agree too. It’s hard even to realize that the Earth that is always turning, although it helps some to think about how day and night constantly follow each other.

Tom has an idea. “Maybe we can find something on the Internet that would show us how the moon circles the Earth and they both move around the sun,” he suggests. “Grandpa, what should I search for?”

“Try ‘solar system,’” I offer.

When Tom types solar system into the search bar, millions of choices pop up. He clicks on an image, and onto the screen comes a picture of the sun and all the planets that circle around it. Each planet is labeled with its name. If you look closely at Earth in the picture, you can see our moon, which circles Earth about once a month.

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Earth is the third planet from the sun. Venus is closer to the sun than we are, and Mars is farther away.

Julie looks at the picture for a minute, her eyes wide. “This is great,” she says, bouncing out of her seat to get closer. “Our Earth is bigger than some planets and smaller than others, like Jupiter and Saturn!”

“I can see that there are eight other planets that circle the sun with us,” Tom points out. “I wonder if we all travel around the sun at the same speed?”

“Maybe there is a video that would show us,” Julie wonders. “Let’s look for solar system videos and see what we get.”

When Tom does as Julie suggests, several choices pop up. He clicks on one.

“Cool! I can actually see the planets going around the sun!” Julie whispers.

Planets Orbiting the Sun in Our Solar System: Some planets travel around the sun faster than Earth does, and some orbit more slowly.

Tom watches for a while without saying anything. Finally he says, “I think the planets closer to the sun—like Earth—go around it faster than those farther away from the sun, like Saturn or Jupiter.” He looks at me to see if I agree.

“It takes three hundred and sixty-five days—one of our years—for the Earth to go around the sun,” I remind him. “If you’re right, then Saturn must have a longer year than we do on Earth.”

Tom spins around and types How long is a Saturn year? into Google. The answer pops up. “Wow,” he
exclaims, spinning back. “There are ten thousand eight hundred and thirty-two days in a Saturn year! That’s almost thirty Earth years!”

“So you are right,” I say, patting him on the shoulder. “Here on Earth we travel around the sun almost thirty times while Saturn is going around once.”

Julie asks Tom to go back to the picture of all the planets and their names. “I want to see which planets are closest to us,” she says. “It looks like Venus and Mars are the closest.” She points the cursor at them. “Hey,” she adds, swiveling her chair around to look at me. “I wonder if anybody lives on those planets?”

Before I can answer, Tom jumps in. “Naw,” he grunts. “I learned in school that nothing lives on any of the other planets that circle the sun.”

“How do we know that?” I ask him quickly.

“Because we’ve sent unmanned probes up to Venus and Mars to look around and bring back samples of dirt and rocks and stuff. No signs of life up there,” he answers confidently.

“That’s right,” I say, nodding. Julie turns back to the screen and watches Venus and Mars circling the sun, along with Earth. “I wonder how come we can all live on Earth when nobody can live on Venus and Mars,” she says softly, looking puzzled.

“I wonder how come we can all live on Earth when nobody can live on Venus and Mars?”

Tom has an idea. He clicks back to the moving solar system on the screen. “Look—you can see that Venus is closer to the sun than we are, and Mars is further away from the sun. Maybe Venus is too close and Mars is too far away, and Earth is just the right distance.” He pauses for a minute, tapping his fingers on the table. “That would mean Venus is too hot, because it’s closer, and Mars is too cold because it’s further away.”

Julie looks up to see whether I agree with Tom. “Makes sense,” I say.

“Like in the Goldilocks story … just right,” she offers. “And maybe their color has something to do with it, too. I’m going to look for a picture that shows those three planets side by side.”

She searches for and finds images of Venus, Earth, and Mars.“Look,” she says, pointing to the screen, “we are so blue! Remember how blue Earth looked from out in space?” Then she points to Venus. “Hey, it’s a kind of tan color. And Mars is really red.”

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“All right,” I say. “You each have your own ideas about why we can live on Earth when nothing lives on Venus or Mars. Tom, you said that we’ve sent probes to both those planets. What have we learned about why nothing lives there?”

Tom turns back to the computer and types why no life on Venus into the search line. “Ha!” he says with a grin, as he gets his answer. “It is because it’s too hot! Hot enough to melt lead, it says. That must be because it’s so close to the sun! Yeah!” he shouts, hopping up and doing a little victory dance around the room.

“Any other reasons why it’s so hot?” I ask softly, pointing to the screen.

He spins back into his chair and takes a look. “It says Venus has a really dense atmosphere, made almost completely of carbon dioxide, and there is no water.”

I turn to Julie. “That tan color is because of the really thick atmosphere blanketing Venus. So the color does tell us something, like you said.” I hold out my palm and she slaps me five with a grin.

Tom has moved on. Why no life on Mars, he types quickly. This time the wiki answers because it is too dry and cold. “Yes!” he trumpets. “That’s because Mars is further from the nice warm sun!” Again he takes a lap around the room.

“Too dry,” whispers Julie. “No water! Not like the blue planet. Our oceans must be why we have life!” Now she too bounces out of her seat. “I am the Water Woman!” she shrieks, chasing after Tom.

“Slow down!” I say, catching them both as they dash by. “I think you’re both right. Life depends on water and the atmosphere, two of Gaia’s organs. It’s like we depend on our lungs and our heart and blood to keep us alive. The really big question is how? How do the atmosphere and the oceans make life possible?”

“How do the atmosphere and the oceans make life possible?”

Tom breaks free of my hug. “I’m the atmosphere guy. I’ll check it out and get back to you,” he promises.

Not to be left out, Julie adds, “Not so fast, Gas Guy. Water Woman is going to find out some things too!”

“Meanwhile,” I say, “let’s go outside and check out that full moon. It should be coming up right over the bay.”

We go outside and look eastward. Sure enough, the moon is rising over the water, casting a shimmering path of light across the bay. Sitting on the edge of the deck with our bare feet in the grass, we stare up into the dark sky. “Look!” Julie points at a blinking light. “There’s an airplane!”

“That must be a night flight to Europe from Boston or New York,” I guess. “If we watch long enough, I bet we can see a satellite pass by.”

We lie back on the deck and watch carefully. After about fifteen minutes Tom sees something. “There, see that?” he says, pointing to the south. We follow his finger and see a tiny bright light streak across the night sky.

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The water sparkles when the moon rises over Pleasant Bay in the early evening.

“How far up in the air is that, Gramps?” Julie wonders.

“Most satellites circling the Earth are more than two hundred miles high,” I respond.

“We were much higher than that in our spacecraft—more than eight hundred miles above the Earth,” Tom reminds us.

Julie is silent for a minute. Then, almost to herself, she says, “I’m glad I’m down here tonight and not flying around up there in the dark.”

“Me too,” says Tom, and we all head inside.