Changing perspectives: Earth from the International Space Station

In season 2, episode 16 of the television show The West Wing, press secretary C.J. Cregg is given a meeting with a fictional group called The Organization of Cartographers for Social Equality. This group wants the president to back a change in public school education away from using the traditional Mercator map to using what they refer to as the Peters Projection map. When C.J. asks why a change in maps is necessary, the group explains that the Mercator map actually badly misrepresents the relative size and location of geographic features on earth. When asked what that has to do with social equality, the group goes on to explain that viewing the inaccurate map can encourage assumptions about countries based on their size and categorization of them as socially “top” or “bottom” based on where they are portrayed on the map. They advocate a Peters Projection map that reverses the northern and southern hemispheres.

This episode appealed to me as a map geek from way back. I enjoy what maps can tell us about the world we live in. Discovering Google Earth provided me with new ways to explore not only from the local to global, but with its historical overlay I can also look at changes over time.

Then in my Twitter feed a couple of years ago people began to share images of earth taken from the International Space Station (ISS) by the astronauts stationed there. I am fascinated that those images and videos frequently seem to show geographical features from a perspective other than the usual N/S/E/W view present on maps. It is fun to pull up Google Earth and find where the images fit in the usual Mercator maps. Each astronaut stationed there takes different kinds of images of earth.

Images taken from one of the four separate cameras, or from the many windows on the ISS, are often different because the space station is not in an equatorial orbit about earth. It orbits earth in an elliptical NW to SE pattern about 15.5 times a day, crossing the equator in each orbit. Its elevation above earth is adjusted based on docking needs. You can see its orbital path in the image for this blog post.

Immanence’s Founding-Editor-In-Chief, Craig Chalquist, PhD, wrote an article about the image posted below called “Earthrise.” The photo was taken in orbit around the moon in 1968 by Apollo 8 astronaut William Anders . In his essay Craig quotes mythologist Joseph Campbell’s comments to Bill Moyers that this image of the rising earth in space could change our worldview about earth and our relationship to her:

“…The only myth that is going to be worth thinking about in the immediate future is one that is talking about the planet, not the city, not these people, but the planet, and everybody on it. And what it will have to deal with will be exactly what all myths have dealt with–the maturation of the individual, from dependency through adulthood, through maturity, and then to the exit; and then how to relate to this society and how to relate this society to the world of nature and the cosmos…And this would be the philosophy for the planet, not for this group, that group, or the other group. When you see the earth from the moon, you don’t see any divisions there of nations or states. This might be the symbol, really, for the new mythology to come.”

Craig comments, “Earthrise dissolves the ancient dualisms that propel…conflicts–self and world, West and East, spirit up and matter down–by positioning Earth itself in the heavens.”

nasa-apollo8-dec24-earthrise

I believe that the images from the ISS could help further this change in our perspective of the earth in the cosmos, and our relationship to our home and all its inhabitants. New perspectives not only include how the images are taken from space, but the mindset and emphasis of those taking them. The more we can remove the boundaries towards each other our cultures have placed in our minds and hearts and the more we allow new viewpoints, the bigger chance we have of moving past old myths and paradigms to further growth in understanding and relationships.

*ISS orbital image is free software; you can redistribute it and/or modify it under the terms of the GNU General Public License as published by the Free Software Foundation; version 3. The Earthrise image is in the public domain.

Lola McCrary is a member of the Immanence Editorial Board. She has an M.A. in Integral Psychology from John F. Kennedy University and currently works as a first reader, fact checker, and proofreader of both fiction and non-fiction in her areas of interest. Contact her at danceswithlife56@gmail.com.

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