Some space buffs argue that the potential to colonize other planets has made Earth disposable, a way station to be chucked into the planetary boneyard as humanity migrates deeper into the cosmos.
But a new book revealing the thoughts of the few people who've had the chance to look back from space reaches exactly the opposite conclusion.
"The Home Planet," published simultaneously in the Soviet Union, the United States (by Addison-Wesley) and seven other countries, is a compilation of 150 color photographs selected from the entire U.S. and Soviet stockpile of space photos, combined with the observations, trite and profound, of about 100 astronauts and cosmonauts from 18 countries.
"The first day or so we all pointed to our countries. The third or fourth day we were pointing to our continents. By the fifth day we were aware of only one Earth," said Sultan Bin Salman al-Saud of Saudi Arabia, who had a window seat on Discovery 5.
One-Earth Point of View
Kevin Kelley, who conceived and edited the book, admits that his own point of view permeates "Home Planet," which was sponsored by the Assn. of Space Explorers (ASE), a 3-year-old organization of astronauts and cosmonauts, and funded by the Institute of Noetic Sciences, a Northern California-based quasi-New Age think tank started by astronaut Edgar Mitchell.
Kelley excluded, for instance, an American astronaut's thoughts on the advantages of having fences between the back yards of neighbors and borders between countries. But he included Muhammad Ahmad Faris of Syria's observation: "From space I saw Earth--indescribably beautiful with the scars of national boundaries gone."
A poll of the 204 people who've blasted into space would not find unanimous approval of the book's pervasive tone of "space transformed me to a warm and mystical brotherhood-of-man world view," concedes Kelley.
"A lot of guys said it didn't change them at all, not in the slightest, " he said. One astronaut even stood up at an ASE convention and said, "I think this (book) is just a bunch of mushy, emotional (nonsense)."
Most of the astronauts don't share that opinion, Kelley said. And editorial biases aside, clear themes do emerge in the observations of the people who contributed.
Speaking by phone from Washington, where he and cosmonaut Aleksandr P. Aleksandrov were preparing to splash down after an international book tour, Apollo astronaut Russell Schweickart said the one thing that is almost universal among those who've been to space is a heightened anxiety about the environmental threat.
Watching 16 sunrises and sunsets with each day's orbiting, seeing the patterns of global pollution on the blue and green ball below, impressed the contributors.
"Mankind is beginning to do some serious damage to its own home," wrote Aleksandrov. "From space you can see it--everything is interconnected here."
"I realized that mankind needs height primarily to better know our long-suffering Earth, to see what cannot be seen close up," wrote Pham Tuan, of Vietnam.
Ulf Merbold, of West Germany, saw the "thin seam of dark blue light--our atmosphere. Obviously this was not the ocean of air I had been told it was so many times in my life. I was terrified by its fragile appearance."
"When the Russian cosmonaut tells me that the atmosphere over Lake Baikal is as polluted as it is over Europe, and when the American astronaut tells me that 15 years ago he could take much clearer pictures of the industrial centers than today, then I am getting concerned," wrote Ernst Messerschmid of West Germany.
Sandstorms and Silt
Africa "looked ill with its sandstorms and the dried-out areas" to Robert Overmyer of the United States. And looking down on Madagascar, Karl Henize of the United States lamented that "the ocean around that island is colored a thick bloody red by the silt that is being eroded from recently deforested areas."
"After an orange cloud--formed as a result of a dust storm over the Sahara and caught up by air currents--reached the Philippines and settled there with rain, I understood that we are all sailing in the same boat," wrote Vladimir Kovalyonok of the U.S.S.R.
Neither of the space explorers out stumping for the book was willing to condemn his country for firing him into space while watching other technologies kill lakes with acid rain or erupt into the sort of radioactive volcano that Chernobyl became.
By sharing their awareness with society, astronauts and cosmonauts may indirectly influence government policies, said Aleksandrov.
A Different Perspective
"There's not a reader of the L.A. Times who has not polluted, trashed something, created a local environmental problem, " said Schweickart. But individuals and governments are learning, he said. And in his view, it's not coincidental that the birth of the modern environmental movement coincided with the first pictures from space.