IN 1519, Ferdinand Magellan set sail from Spain to look for a new westward route to Asia. He didn’t survive the journey.But three years later, what remained of his crew made it home, having completed the first circumnavigation of the globe. Logbooks from the voyage were a revelation, the most complete record yet of our planet’s infinite variety.
Nearly 500 years later, the International Space Station completes an orbit of our planet every 92 minutes – 16 circumnavigations a day. The ISS is a busy scientific laboratory and NASA budgets zero time for photographing Earth, but there are dozens of cameras on board and astronauts use them daily. The impulse is one Magellan and his crew would recognise: to record – and share – the wonders of the Earth.
Those wonders are endless. My final space mission lasted five months, from December 2012 to May 2013, yet I never tired of looking out the window. I don’t think any astronaut ever has, or will. Every chance we have, we float over to see what’s changed since we last went around the Earth. There’s always something new to see because the planet itself is rotating, so each orbit takes us over different parts of it. Every crossing of the Pacific, every landfall, brings different weather and vegetation and lighting. And as the seasons change, sunlight, snow and new plant life create new patterns, the world over.
During 2597 orbits of our planet, I took about 45,000 photographs. At first my approach was scattershot: just take as many as possible. But soon, I began to think of myself as a hunter, silently stalking certain shots. Some eluded me: Brasilia, the capital of Brazil; Uluru in Australia. I captured other shots only after methodical planning. Travelling at 28,000km/h, the margin for error is very slim. Miss your opportunity and it may not arise again for another six weeks.
Over time, my ability to understand what I was seeing improved. I started to look forward to certain places and lighting conditions, in the way you love to hear a favourite piece of music. I began to get nature’s sly jokes: rivers that looked like letters of the alphabet, pieces of land that resembled animals. I became more adept at noticing and interpreting the secrets Earth was discreetly revealing.
My ability to photograph what I was seeing also improved. I started to figure out how to compose a shot in a way that draws attention to particular features and textures. I didn’t think of myself as the next Ansel Adams, but I didn’t want my pictures to look like satellite images, either. I wanted them to have a human element, to express a point of view.
Like many astronauts, I felt compelled to try to communicate what I was learning, so from orbit I began posting photos on Twitter and other social media sites. The immediacy of the reactions and interactions, the collective sense of wonder, made me feel as connected to our planet and to other people as I ever have, even though I was floating 400km above Earth in the company of just five other human beings.
For me, Oceania – Australia, New Zealand and about 10,000 islands scattered across the Pacific like clumps of damp confetti – is a study in extremes: our planet’s most riotously colourful and least densely populated patches are here, along with the most arid inhabited continent and the most fragile coral atolls.
While two-thirds of Australia is covered in sparsely populated deserts and semi-arid plains, flattened by erosion and baked by the sun, there is surprising and apparently infinite variety in Western Australia’s Great Sandy Desert. Swirls of green in the north, close to the coast, give way to scorched rusty rocks and parched riverbeds a few hundred kilometres away. Further south, labyrinthine stream beds run like veins through rounded red dunes in the Gibson Desert; hummocks of blue-ish and green grass soften the hills.
The Pilbara region has an abundance of iron-rich sedimentary rocks, plus agate, copper, jade and manganese. There’s nothing discreet about their presence: it looks as though all the natural minerals, pigments and crystals of the planet have been pulverised, tossed by the wind and mixed with sparing amounts of water to create some of its most vivid patterns.
The Fortescue riverbed appears the colour of oxidised iron; the addition of water intensifies the brilliant oranges and golds. On the Nullarbor Plain, summer bushfires, sparked by extreme heat and dryness, sear new scars. On average there are 50,000 bushfires a year in Australia – a cycle of devastation and regeneration that is millions of years old. Meanwhile, further south, clouds are sprinkled like icing sugar over the limestone bedrock near the Great Australian Bight coast.
By Chris Hadfield
Edited extract from You are Here: Around the World in 92 Minutes by Chris Hadfield (Pan Macmillan, $45), out Nov 1
With thanks to The Australian
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