Down to Earth Swimming in the Universe


[ Music ]>>I’ve taught astronomy to Boy
Scouts for most of my adult life and know the summer stars,
in particular, like the back of my hand and I’ve
sought out — I’ve lived in the Mojave
Desert for eight years. And I would go away from the
lights there, even as meager as they might be, to lay on
top of a car and just swim, you know, in the universe. So I’ve always loved the
night sky and the stars and so on my very first shuttle flight, both my shuttle flights,
we took some time. I convinced my crew to turn off
all the light in the cockpit, let our eyes dark-adapt, and just sit there
perched in the windows. All of us were in different
windows and you could see — I mean, the Milky
Way is just stunning. [ Music ] Of course, the lights
don’t flicker. They’re steady because they’re
not coming through the dust and coming through
the atmosphere. As you really adjust, you start
to sense the very subtle colors that are in the stars, a little
bit of reddish, a little bit of bluish, blue-white
and that was, you know, really neat for me to see. The space shuttle was
incredibly busy though, and you don’t get much time
to look out the windows. It was having the downtime. So you work really hard. I mean, Monday through Friday
was a blur, working late, you’re living at work. There is always more to do and then weekends
it slows down some. There is some work. You work out, have a video
conference with the family, but you do have some
time for some projects and for looking out the windows. And I really got into low-light
photography in particular. The cupola was fairly new. We had some fairly new
cameras, the D3 that was good at capturing low-light imagery. I was up there during the
last space shuttle mission. So it’s just 135. Atlantis was docked
to the space station. And I grabbed Sandy Magnus,
a good friend of mine, and she was on that
crew and she had lived on the space station
a few years before but the cupola was new
since she was there. All they had was single windows
that looked straight down and there you’re just
watching the earth go by at five miles a second. You haven’t looked
out the cupola yet. Come on. Come with me. I’ve got so much to do. No, Sandy. You have got to see this. So we went in there and
cranked the shutters open and we were flying into
this astonishing aurora, aurora australis,
southern lights. This rippling, pulsing, river
of green that’s down below us, the red that is stretching up to
our altitude, it’s like [noise]. It was just breathtaking. And I had not practiced any
low-light photography up to that point, but I knew right
then that I had to figure out how to capture this and
so I started working on that. I called the photography experts
on the ground and said okay, what are the settings I use
to get started with this? And part of it was experimental. I had to get close
and then start trying. I got some pictures
actually of Atlantis docked to the space station in
the night with a little bit of the green aurora
off to the side. And then I got a picture
of Atlantis’ plasma trail as it came in over the Yucatan
heading toward its landing in Florida and it’s
just fascinating. The more you look, the
more you start to see. You see the stars like you
have never seen them before. I’d give a lot to
see that view again. [ Music ]

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