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On 21 September, 2017, over 100 big history teachers and students eagerly listened to a captivating talk by astronaut André Kuipers organised by the UvA and the IIS. The occasion was the 2nd Big History Teachers Conference in the Netherlands, held on the 5-year anniversary of the introduction of the course in Dutch high schools.

Kuipers had been invited to talk about how he became an astronaut, about his experiences in space, and particularly about the way looking back at Earth from space changed the way he looks at the world. That seemed fitting for a big history conference, because looking at our planet from space inspired many big history pioneers to pursue the development of a type of history that places human history in its biological, geological and cosmic context.

Like these big history pioneers, Kuipers was inspired by one of the first pictures taken of Earth from space: the famous Earthrise photo, made by the Apollo 8 astronauts. In fact, in his youth, he stuck Earthrise to his wall. The picture and his love for science fiction books made him determined to travel to space one day, and see for himself what Earth looked like from that vantage point.

He succeeded in doing so and travelled to the International Space Station twice, the first time in 2004 and a second time in 2011. During the last trip, he spent 193 days in space, which gave him ample opportunity to enjoy the views from the newly installed Cupola. From there, he reveled in the unimpeded view of Earth zipping by at tens of thousands kilometers per hour

Alarming views of the earth

According to Kuipers, even though the view from the Cupola is a bit different from the Earthrise perspective, it evokes the same cosmic feeling. The space station is much closer to Earth than Apollo 8 was when Earthrise was taken, but also in in the space station, you feel that the Earth is a small sphere floating in a vast cosmos instead of the endless plane we take for granted. In fact, in some ways, being able to look at the planet from a less distant perspective than the Apollo 8 astronauts did contributes to this cosmic feeling. Kuipers described flying over the more than a billion inhabitants of India in a matter of minutes, which made people feel tiny compared to everything else. Close up views of the Earth also revealed stunning beauty. Kuipers particularly liked the Bahamas with its amazingly shaped and colored atolls, and the Australian outback with its rocky deserts in different hues of red. But pictures of the Earth taken from space also demonstrated how vulnerable our planet is. Images taken over the years show how the green in the Amazon basin is being replaced by brown tracts of deforested Earth at a rapid pace. These alarming views are reinforced by the blackness of space that contrasts with our planet’s brilliant but extremely thin layers of water and air. In these layers, most of what we know has happened. In them, most of what we will ever know has to happen. We cannot leave them. There is very little for us on the side of the International Space Station opposite to Earth.

Therefore, Kuipers argues that space travel should not be seen as a way to get away from our planet. Even though we are members of a species that wants to explore new environments, we will not be able to go beyond our Solar System, at least not for the foreseeable future. Instead, space travel is important for looking back at Earth. We can use it to map how the Earth is changing, also as a result of human behavior. And we can use it to help us develop a cosmic feeling, which may encourage us to take good care of the only home in space we have.

90 degrees flip

There are also other ways to become aware of our cosmic context. When driving his car, Kuipers sometimes likes to imagine the world as if it were flipped 90 degrees. That makes him feel he is moving past the Earth, like he did in the space station, glued to the side of our planetary sphere by gravity. And Kuipers is a proponent of teaching big history, which is why he agreed to speak at the conference. After all, his space travels and talks and big history were not only stimulated by a similar point of view, but also share a similar goal: showing people how interdependent the Earth and everything that lives on it are, and encouraging them to manage these interdependencies in a sustainable way.