Kathryn Sullivan in her official astronaut photo in the early 1980s. Credit: NASA

There is currently a person on this planet who has traveled to outer space and to the deep sea. Many of us dream of one or the other; to dream of both at once seems overly ambitious or even greedy. But Kathryn Sullivan has done it. Kathryn was the first American woman to walk in space, and was on the mission to deploy the Hubble space telescope. Primarily an oceanographer, she’s explored the hydrothermal vents of the East Pacific Rise in the submersible Alvin. Fittingly, she has been the head of NOAA since August 2013, leading the U.S. effort to study the ocean and atmosphere.

But perhaps more important than those enviable accomplishments is the perspective they've given her. Last week, I listened to a live interview with Kathryn (organized by Pew) that I honestly had put on as background noise. Yet I found myself entranced by her eloquence in describing her vision of and for our planet and our species and how it's been influenced by her exploration. Below are two excerpts that I found particularly meaningful. (Here's a link to the full video.)

The infamous blue marble, taken in December 1972. Photo: NASA/Apollo 17 crew

Here, she describes how pictures of Earth from space (a favorite topic of mine) have changed people, something I certainly take for granted:

Q: I know that what you saw from space so changed the trajectory of your own life as well. What did you see in Earth when you did look back at Earth?

Kathryn: My main focus, I think almost everybody’s, was to look back at Earth. You are above the atmosphere. The stars, they are spectacular, but they struck me as not that unlike an amazing night in the high mountains, not so wildly different than any other way I had ever seen the stars.

The way we could see the Earth was incredible different. Going around it entirely in an hour and a half, you get a sunrise or sunset every 45 minutes. You can either see extraordinary panoramas—literally a continent at a time outside your office window—or look more closely and see remarkably fine detail. We saw a great dust storm coming off the continent of North Africa, and you could trace tendrils of that as far as Bermuda with the naked eye—just a fine little filigree of dust all the way across. That was to me really, really entrancing.

And what accumulated—and I think it didn’t really crystallize in final form until my third flight [pause] — I grew up as a geologist and oceanographer. I had been fascinated with maps from this tall [when I was young]. So to be able to see the Earth with my own eyes—that way was beyond the capstone experience, to put it mildly. But what accumulated by my third flight was an underlying dissatisfaction if all that it was for was that I got the cool view.

It wasn’t enough for me to say I have the neat pictures, and I have the cool view and I can tell the stories, and that’s pretty cool. Somehow it fired in me a drive to figure out, How do you make this matter? How do you make the fact that we are the first generation of human beings that can view the Earth from that perspective? Not only with these eyes but with electronic eyes that let us really understand the characteristics of things, map our oceans, understand the seafloor, map the continents, track the weather on a daily basis.

We are the first generation of human beings that have that capability. It’s transformed how we understand the planet, and it’s really transformed our ability to develop foresight, predictions… Weather forecasting as we know it is not possible without the ability to measure the whole globe almost as a snapshot and then propagate that out with computers. That was not possible until the space age. Anybody here not have heard of the El Nino? We didn’t understand that the El Nino was a basin-scale temperature effect of the Pacific Ocean until the satellite era, when you could see essentially the whole Pacific Ocean at once. That’s an extraordinary thing.

What it really generated in me is that I don’t want to just be someone talking at country clubs, and showing my slides, and telling all of you how cool it is to look at the Earth from space. There has got to be a way to drive that home and make it actually matter in the lives, the plans, the safety, the well-being of people back on Earth. That really sincerely is what keeps drawing me to NOAA’s mission. NOAA is where all of the investments we make as a country and as a globe in understanding the Earth and sensing it from space. We are where the taxpayer gets the return on investment. We literally touch 300 million Americans a day with the environmental intelligence that we create out of these flows of data.


This second one shows how she manages to simultaneously see people as just another species on this planet in a blink of geologic time, while appreciating our unique capacities and cherishing our cultures. It’s hard to see one without downplaying the other, but she manages to do both.

Q: The question I want to ask is: What can people do? What should we be thinking about in terms of protecting Planet Earth and making sure that we survive, that our children and grandchildren and the next generations do as well?

Kathryn: The Earth will be fine. The Earth has been through dramatic change through geologic time. It’s changing rapidly around us now. There is no question that the planet will be fine. The question is over the societies that we built, the economies we’ve built, and us as a species. We’ve come into being in a certain happy equilibrium of things. There are worrisome signs that our activity on the planet and the scale of the human imprint on the planet is contributing to the changes and accelerating some of the changes that could push us out of the equilibrium. Dangerously out of that equilibrium.

You all hear the idyllic and idealistic response from astronauts that you finally see it all as one planet, as one closed system, and there are no boundaries. The first two statements are true. But you’d have to be trying if you look out a spacecraft window, you’d have to be trying to not notice political borders. You can see several of them. You’d have to be trying to not notice the hand of man. I mean, Beijing, New York, Paris are big gray smudges against a green or other backdrop.

I also came home clearly with that impression—that we are an intelligent tool-making species. When we focus intention and energy and resources on something, we leave very visible fingerprints on the planet. And we are leaving some less visible fingerprints as well with the acidity of the ocean and the changing chemistry of the atmosphere.

So A: Be mindful of it. Try to make the public dialogue more constructive and more focused on actions that we can take. B: in our own way, at whatever scale we can work, it is possible to live more lightly on this planet without devastating human economies. We are going to have to look at that. But it is complex. It goes up against values and cultures and the natural human desire for growth and for improvement of people’s lives. It’s going to be complex.