The Ultimate Field Trip

An Astronaut's View of Earth

by Kathryn D. Sullivan, Ph.D.
NASA Astronaut

Namib Desert [STS035-602-024]
The cloud bank that often hugs the coast of southwest Africa never drops rain on the Namib Desert. But this coastal fog, produced by the temperature inversion over the cold Benguela Current, frequently does penetrate the valleys between the dunes. Recent studies indicate that tiny flora and fauna have adapted to this "wet desert" by developing mechanisms for retrieving their water supply from the fog. Lacking such mechanisms, human beings have died of thirst on this mountain-backed desert. Some of them were hunting for diamonds deposited in these sands by geological processes that remain a mystery. Their bones, the bones of shipwrecked sailors, or more likely, the spars of their ships gave rise to the name "Skeleton Coast." The skeletons may even have been those of whales washed ashore. But it was not the rib-like dunes that evoked the name; this portion of the coast of Africa was called the Skeleton Coast long before such synoptic views as this were possible.

Why does someone who is nearing the end of 9 years of professional preparation as a marine geologist turn away from the sea for a Government aerospace job? In my case, it was because the job was offered by NASA and held the almost incredible possibility of getting to see our home planet from space with my own eyes. In my mind, this was an opportunity no self-respecting Earth scientist and explorer could pass up, so all the complex questions usually involved in a major career change seemed quite simple. After 13 years and two flights (or 209 revolutions and 4.8 million miles), the wisdom of my course change is confirmed.

Kathy Sullivan's Hometown [STS039-89-062]
If you know your geography, you can track waterways and highways, parks and airports, mountain peaks and city streets to locate your hometown in a view from the Space Shuttle. In this color infrared view of the Los Angeles Basin, you can follow the San Diego Freeway from the Naval Station at Long Beach, past Los Angeles International Airport and Marina del Rey, through the Santa Monica Mountains, to the Ventura Freeway just south of the Sepulveda Dam Recreation Area (the reddish patch in the San Fernando Valley); turn left and go past Tarzana to the intersection with Topanga Canyon Blvd.; this is the place our astronaut author calls home: Woodland Hills, CA.

My role as a Mission Specialist aboard the Space Shuttle gives me two exciting avenues for exploration on each mission. On the one hand, I conduct experiments or observations on behalf of a large team of scientists and engineers on the ground, in essence serving as their hands, eyes, and ears in orbit. In many respects I become part of the investigating team, sharing with them the excitement of the science and the challenge of planning and executing a complex mission. There's also a great responsibility here, however, since space flights are unique and expensive scientific opportunities. When an event or observation occurs only once during a flight, the procedure must be done correctly the first—and only—time. A tremendous amount of training and preparation is devoted to ensuring that all our procedures are correct and that we are proficient at performing them. We also train ourselves to get the job done on orbit even if one or two things have gone wrong; you can't give up easily in the space business.

Well-Known Peninsula [STS51C-44-026]
You don't have to be a good geography student to recognize Florida in this astronauts' view of their launch site. Cape Canaveral is the spit on the Atlantic coast. Straight inland from it, within the central chain of lakes, is Disney World. And on the Gulf side of the state is Tampa Bay. The lakes are hollowed-out low spots in the limestone that was laid down beneath an ancient sea. Such sinkholes in this "karst" topography continue to open up, occasionally swallowing houses. The chain of lakes culminates in the huge Lake Okeechobee. You can see a large agricultural area (Florida oranges?) just to the south of it. The surrounding Everglades (where the alligators roam) lead us to Miami in the foreground.

The second avenue of exploration is quite different from the first. Instead of the tremendous professional satisfaction I get from succeeding at the formal tasks specified in my flight plan, this one returns much more personal pleasure and insight. I'm referring, of course, to the experience that originally motivated me to apply to NASA: looking out my "office" window at the Earth below.

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