One Strange Rock: Jerry Linenger shares a comet and a new perspective on Earth

Posted by Alison Klesman
on Monday, April 9, 2018

An impact crater as seen from space. // Photo Credit: NASA

Our planet sure has taken a beating to get here, and it’s still not easy to maintain an environment ideal for life. Massive, planet-changing collisions have rocked our world, while manmade chemicals have threatened the tenuous layer of molecules responsible for protecting our cells from the damaging UV rays thrown out by our parent star. Throughout it all, our planet has persevered, creating a place we can safely call home.

Tonight, National Geographic will premiere the third episode of its newest docuseries, One Strange Rock. “Shield” explores how our planet protects us from the dangers we face — dangers you may not even realize exist. Many of those protections are invisible, happening below our feet or above our heads; but just because you don’t think about them often (or maybe at all) doesn’t mean they aren’t there. From the magnetic field generated inside our planet’s core to the layer of protective ozone far overhead, our Earth forms a protective shield that allows life to thrive.

But what about the dangers for those who choose to fly even higher, orbiting the planet in capsules, shuttles, and space stations?

I recently spoke with former astronaut Jerry Linenger, who, along with several fellow spaceflight veterans, lent his voice to the show. Linenger’s experience includes nearly five months on the Russian Space Station Mir, during which the station experienced a serious fire and numerous other troubles, including the failure of life-support and computer systems, and a near-collision with an incoming spacecraft.

These challenges highlight both the dangers of stepping off-planet, but also the ingenuity and dedication of the men and women who do so. The stories and perspectives they bring back help to shape our view of the planet, especially for those of us who have never left it. They also bring into the light the difficulty we face in creating even a small, sustainable environment for humans against the dangers of outer space, and the lengths we must go to in order to replicate the everyday conditions we enjoy — and certainly take for granted — here on Earth.

Linenger in 1997, wearing a respirator mask following the fire on the Mir space station. // Photo Credit: NASA

Space from a space station

From the ground, those of us who love astronomy are constantly looking up to the heavens. But what does space look like from the space station? Linenger spoke about the feeling of awe one experiences when looking out into the universe unhindered. In space, he says, you can see so many more stars than from even the darkest place on Earth. And, of course, they don’t twinkle. “They’re strong points of light, and there are stars everywhere. I couldn’t pick out the Big Dipper, there were so many stars,” he says.

And against the backdrop of those stars, Linenger’s time on Mir coincided with the 1997 apparition of Comet Hale-Bopp. He recalls picking up a CB radio signal from Newfoundland asking what the comet looked like from space — but had to reply that he was so busy working at night that he hadn’t had the chance to look.

But, he says, the next day he did — just so he could respond if he picked up the same CB signal again. “It was shining like a flashlight,” he says. “I could see the comet, the bright tail … I had to look away, then back out again. It looked fake.” But it wasn’t, and he even calls the bright, stunning comet his good luck charm on the perilous journey that ensued.

Comet Hale-Bopp on in May 1997, as imaged on STS-84. // Photo Credit: NASA

The bigger picture

Back on Earth, “The question I can never answer,” Linenger says, “is, ‘Does being in space make you feel bigger or smaller?’” Looking back toward Earth, he says, and seeing the entire planet below made him feel bigger — but turning around and looking the other way, out into space, brought with it a profound sense of insignificance.

Communicating these feelings to those who have never left the planet can be challenging, but Linenger brought up a point I think summarized it beautifully. It makes one realize “how feeble, how inept our efforts are to name and categorize it all. We overthink it,” he says, “chopping it up in our logic-driven mode” to pursue science and understanding. But while that understanding is important, One Strange Rock shows the value and the awesomeness of taking a step back. It’s about pathos, Linenger adds — “We need to let our hearts speak to us … To realize what an incredible planet we live on, how fortunate and lucky we are,” and, he says, “how good we have it.”

Instead of categorizing and naming everything, One Strange Rock invites you to “take it all in — the big picture, the broad perspective, the awe and wonder of it all,” Linenger says. The best way to enjoy it, he adds, is to sit back, put your feet up, and just watch.

One Strange Rock helps us to “pull our eyes out of the telescope, pull back from the data, and fall in love with planet Earth,” Linenger adds. And this big picture prompts us to both realize and appreciate our place in the universe as a whole. “Every speck of my body is part of the explosion of stars — it boggles my mind. It should boggle everyone’s mind,” Linenger says.

And it should. The story of life on Earth is a complex and unique one — at least, until we find confirmation that we are not alone. But even if our planet shares characteristics with countless others, how we specifically came to be in the universe is both fortunate and tenuous, a triumph that took millennia and a tragedy waiting to happen any second. “Shield” premiers tonight at 10pm E.T. on the National Geographic Channel. This episode will take you from the rim of an active lava lake to a glider high above the clouds, and finally, to a space station circling the globe, where we’ve worked hard to create a small, livable environment that is just like the one we’ve had handed to us below.

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