The drama of planet Earth as seen from space: as experienced by astronauts, Star Trek’s Captain Kirk and more

Star Trek: Original Series ran from 1966 to 1969 for three seasons, and at the time, the sci-fi series that spawned a franchise spanning decades managed, in the short time it existed, to open up topics of discussion considered sensitive, or even taboo for those years.

It succeeded in this despite the fact that the obstacles were many, and some of them were financial. One might say that you don’t have ideas if you don’t have money, but the original Star Trek series proved that you can, even if not immediately.

In the spirit of fairness, it should be noted that Star Trek: Original Series earned its immortality a bit later, when it also became one of the cult series of “the next generation,” paving the way for future series based on Gene Roddenberry’s universe.

Although not necessarily the first Star Trek captain, before him being Chris Pike, James T. Kirk (played by William Shatner) made history, along with his first mate Mr. Spock (Leonard Nimoy), along with Nichelle Nichols (Lt. Uhura), George Takey (Mr. Sulu), Majel Barrett (Nurse Christine Chapel), James Doohan (Scotty), DeForest Kelley (Bones) and Walter Koenig (Chekov).

Of all these, William Shatner, Walter Koenig and George Takey are still with us. Shortening the list even further, the only one of the three to have had the opportunity to actually travel into space as his character is Shatner himself, the actor who brought the charismatic James T. Kirk to life.

Image from Star Trek: Original Series / Pictured: James T. Kirk (played by William Shatner), Spock (Leonard Nimoy), Nichelle Nichols (Lt. Uhura), George Takey (Mr. Sulu), and DeForest Kelley (Bones).

Reality, far bleaker than any Star Trek episode: Captain Kirk’s reaction after space travel.

William Shatner found himself in the headlines this week after speaking, for the first time with absolute honesty, about his trip into space. Despite the fact that the actor has finally arrived at the place he has kept us daydreaming about for so many years, he confessed that the trip did not make him feel very happy at all, feeling more like he was at “the funeral of the full Earth”.

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In an excerpt from his new book, Boldly Go, published exclusively by Variety, the former Star Trek captain revealed that although he thought the trip would make him happy, the effect was quite the opposite, with him returning from space extremely sad.

“Everything I thought about it was wrong. Everything I expected to see is wrong,” Shatner wrote in the Variety excerpt. “The contrast between the vicious coldness of space and the way Earth looks filled me with an overwhelming sadness,” the “Captain” continued.

“Every day, we are faced with the reminder of the further destruction of the Earth: the extinction of animal species, flora and fauna… that took five billion years to evolve and suddenly we will never see them again, and that is because of human intervention. It filled me with horror. My trip to space was supposed to be a celebration; instead, it felt like a funeral,” William Shatner wrote.

Since publication, his statements have gone viral, and rightly so. Basically, they’re a compelling example of the so-called big-picture view: the reaction a person has when travelling in space and seeing Earth from afar, understanding its fragility.

The Blue Origin crew of which William Shatner, known to the public for his role in Star Trek: Original Series

The big picture, a concept that might make us better understand why we now “can’t see the forest for the trees”

In a 2015 book he wrote called The Orbital Perspective, NASA Reserve astronaut Ron Garan explained that he felt extremely sad when he landed on top of the International Space Station in 2008.

“As I approached the top of this arc, it was as if time stood still and I was flooded with both emotion and awareness,” Garan wrote at the time.

“As I looked down on Earth, this extraordinarily fragile oasis, this island that has been given to us and has protected all my life from the harshness of space, an immense sadness came over me and I felt like I had been punched in the gut,” the former astronaut added.

“Despite the overwhelming beauty of this image, there is a serious inequity in the apparent paradise we have been given,” he explained, pointing to hunger and water shortages in some areas of the globe.

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The two are not the only ones to have spoken out on this sensitive subject. Edgar Mitchell, the sixth person to walk on the Moon, felt in tandem the effects of his time in space.

“From up there on the Moon, international politics seems so petty. You just want to grab a politician by the throat, drag him for miles and say, ‘Look at this, you bastard,'” Mitchell pointed out.

Also, in a 2020 interview with The Irish Times, former astronaut Chris Hadfield also told Róisín Ingle that his 4,000 hours in space gave him an unparalleled perspective on the planet, but also on the “eternity of time”. “The major threat today is neither asteroids nor solar flares. It’s us,” Hadfield stressed.

The idea of perspective imaging was first coined by author Frank White in 1987, and refers largely to what astronauts feel once in space.

“Anyone who lives on a space station… will always get perspective. They’ll see things that we know but don’t experience, which is that the Earth is one system,” White said in a video produced by Planetary Collective. “We are all part of that system and there is a certain unity and coherence to it all.”

The positive side of the “big picture” is that with the sense of deep sadness comes hope: the realization that we are all inhabitants of this planet can unite us. Basically, we are talking about an Earth that has survived solar flares, asteroids, and other catastrophes that, at least on the surface, caused damage, but in reality helped shape the world as we know it today.

In 2018, a study of 39 astronauts and cosmonauts found that their perceptions of Earth had changed as a result of space travel.

“Earth should be viewed as a beautiful and fragile object to be cherished,” wrote psychiatrist Nick Kanas in his 2020 paper.

Researchers are working hard to try to find a way to recreate the “big picture” so that the phenomenon can be experienced by everyone, not just those “lucky” ones who make it to space.

Right now, unless you’re an astronaut, a movie star, or a very rich person, the chances of you getting into space are slim to none. So one way to benefit from the “big picture effect” might be to change your mind every time you tend to scoff at global warming.

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