Philosophical Society of Washington

Minutes of the 2103rd Meeting

Speaker: Mary Cleave, NASA Goddard Space Flight Center
Topic: “An Astronaut's View of the Planet Earth”

President Garavelli called the 2103rd meeting to order at 8:18 p.m. on March 19, 1999. The Recording Secretary read the minutes of the 2102nd meeting and they were approved.

The speaker for the 2103rd meeting was Mary Cleave of NASA Goddard Space Flight Center. The title of her presentation was, “An Astronaut's View of the Planet Earth.”

Large-scale environmental phenomenon can be studied on a global scale by utilizing remote sensing robotic spacecraft images. Some of these phenomena are driven by nature and others are a result of human activities. Utilizing photography from her two missions on the space shuttle in 1985 and 1989, and other spacecraft imagery, Ms. Cleave described these phenomena. She also took us on a fascinating guided tour of our planet from low Earth orbit.

Ms. Cleave reported that weighing nothing is great fun, especially if you're short. You don't need a stool to reach things! Also on a light note, and putting things in perspective for us, in low Earth orbit, you circle the Earth every 1 1/2 hours, which means the day-night cycle is only 45 minutes long. Ms. Cleave said this was great, especially if you were into a sunrise-sunset sort of thing.

Anecdotally, Ms. Cleave pointed out that in space you play with your food a lot. She showed us a video she took of one of her fellow astronauts floating in the space shuttle while eating similarly floating Pepperidge Farm “Goldfish” crackers. The image was one not unlike the shark in the movie “Jaws.” The point of this story was that whereas on Earth, cracker crumbs fall in you lap and don't create special problems, in space they don't fall anywhere and wind up in equipment air filters. Thus, like the rest of us, the astronauts do house cleaning chores after their day's work. However, after the work and house cleaning is done, they oft take advantage of their unique perspective and photograph wondrous images of Earth. Many of the photographs Ms. Cleave showed to us were exceptional works of abstract art, with remarkable compositions of intriguing colors and remarkable shapes.

Ms. Cleave also pointed out that most astronauts are not environmentalists who are trained to look at conservation and preservation of things on the planet. Rather, they are usually military test pilots who are trained to blow things up, not conserve and preserve them. However, the view from low Earth orbit quickly trains everyone, even the test pilots, to be environmentalists. This conversion usually comes about after the initial and most striking observations from space that our planet is quite finite and it's also 70% ocean. Whereas, we know these things intellectually from our Earth-bound field trips and science books, the finite nature of our planet and the small portion that we actually inhabit instantly becomes real when you look down from low Earth orbit.

The view from space also shows our impact on the Earth. It is also now straightforward to spot major population centers on the earth. Just look for the focused contrails from commercial aircraft to point the way. On a similar note, we have all heard that boundaries between the nations of the world are usually somewhat arbitrary and could not be identified except for the man-made gates and fences at national boundaries. However, differences in land use policies now indicate boundaries between countries to observers in low Earth orbit. Similarly, it is quite easy to distinguish between park lands and non-park lands. As these data are analyzed and become available to more public agencies and private groups, environmentally sound procedures and practices can be implemented to preserve and conserve the Earth resources.

Ms. Cleave then closed her presentation and kindly answered questions from the floor. President Garavelli thereupon thanked Ms. Cleave for the society, announced the next meeting and made the usual parking announcement. He then adjourned the 2103rd meeting to the Social Hour at 9:54 p.m.


Respectfully submitted,
Bill Spargo
Recording Secretary

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