Back to Earth: What Life in Space Taught Me About Our Home Planet and our Mission to Protect It
© 2021 Nicola Stott
A staple of astronaut memoirs is the attempt to communicate the near-religious experience of seeing the Earth from space for the first time, a moment which no picture (authors like Massimino aver) can really capture. Earth appears both beyond momentous and achingly vulnerable, its billions of human lives protected only by the thinnest whisp of an atmosphere. Nicola Scott makes the implications of that fragile image her theme, musing on lessons that her work in NASA, and particularly her time abroad the shuttles and the station, have taught her.
Across three shuttle missions and two ISS expeditions, Stott has lived well over a hundred days in space. Life aboard the Station, where only a thin skin of metal protected Stott and her crewmates from death, where their resources were scarce and closely monitored, and everyone out of necessity shouldered responsibility for their common fate, made her doubly aware of the importance of stewardship once back to Earth. Stott’s memoir of her time in space is unusual in that it lacks the usual forward-driving narrative, the strictly biographical arc. Instead, she focuses on her mission of raising awareness about the dangers of climate change, and of encouraging those who are resigned to despair to take up the sword again and get in the fight. “Focus”, however, is something of a misstatement; the book is organized into seven principles that she’s developed in the course of her life. These are not strictly rooted in climate change or disaster response, and on the whole are fairly general: “Stay grounded”, “Make haste slowly”, “Live as crew, not passengers”. Each receives a series of reflections drawn from Stott’s life, so despite the lack of an overt biographical focus, the reader who is interested in Stott’s background will pick up details as they progress — including the fact that her father was an amateur pilot who built his own airplanes.
Stott doesn’t launch into a thorough argument about Co2’s effects or human culpability, but instead touches on widespread talking points ranging from the greenhouse effect to water scarcity, while at the same time offering a defense of ISS activity against claims from critics that the money could be spent better elsewhere. The lessons themselves are nice enough, but not penetrating or compelling. While I admire her passion and professional accomplishments, the book left me wanting. I still enjoyed reading it, for her brief stories about the people she’d worked with, her hushed wonder at seeing the Earth from space, and so on, but it never seized my imagination or made me think more deeply or differently about its content.