I wouldn't have the courage to leap out of a capsule 23 miles up, that's for sure. Hell, I could never even pluck up courage to leap off the high diving board. But one thing I do envy our culture's latest daredevil hero for and that's the chance to see the Earth from that incredible height, to get a greater sense of its curvature, its wholeness, its planet-ness. And to feel in his body, for four whole minutes and at a greater intensity than ever before, that deep strong pull homewards that we know as gravity.
One of the first astronauts to see our Earth from space spoke fervently about his feeling of identification with it. Just as we may see a photo of our own house, our own street, our own town and say "Ah, there's home," he suddenly realized that he was seeing, through the porthole of his spacecraft, the only home that humans have ever known. And exhilarating though that moment was—he said later that it changed his whole life—one can only imagine the profound sense of relief he and his companions felt when their feet eventually touched solid ground again.
Most of us never get further up than 40,000 feet and even then we are more likely to be watching movies, reading in-flight magazines or waiting for the drinks trolley to reach us than we are to be marvelling at our (somewhat) expanded view of the landscape. And millions of our fellow humans have never been inside a plane. However, the concept of flight, the concept of travel, even on a train or in a car, plays tricks with our minds. In fact, just our very ability to move from place to place on foot rather than being rooted in one spot for life, like a tree, gives us a false idea of who and what we are.
We talk about being on the Earth, as though anyone except Neil Armstrong has ever actually been on anything else. Religious people sometimes talk about being 'stewards' of the Earth, as though our planet hadn't managed perfectly well for millions of years before we turned up, a few cosmic seconds ago, to be its self-appointed 'stewards.' We talk about 'Mother Earth' and ourselves as her children, but most children grow up and leave home and that is one thing we cannot do. Nor would we want to.
We have no difficulty in seeing rocks and mountains, sand and sea, rivers and stones as being an intrinsic part of the fabric of our planet. Even plants, we can imagine as part of that fabric, since apart from tumbleweeds they mostly stay where they are. But moving creatures, the ones with feet and hooves and wings and manufactured wheels, those seem different to our literal, childlike minds and it takes a leap of intellect—a leap that many people seem unwilling or unable to take—to understand, to really get it, that we, too, are just as much a part of the Earth as a mountain, a pebble or a mushroom. The molecules and atoms we are made of have been here since the Big Bang and the energy forces that formed those molecules and atoms were here even before that, part of a vast mysterious universe that is beyond the grasp of our finite minds.
Yes, it is an intellectual leap, but it is a leap worth making because it is a leap that can change your life. Some people can go even further than that and are able, even if only for a few seconds at a time, actually to experience that oneness and have a total knowing and bodily feeling of it that is way beyond all thought or concept. I long for the day when we can all do that.
I want to say to everyone: you are part of this planet in the same way that your nose is part of your face. Yes, theoretically you could chop your nose off and hurl it out into space, beyond the sky, beyond gravity's pull…
But why would you ever want to?