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Let’s look through… the ISS window…

( That title and picture won’t mean a thing to you unless you’re a Brit old enough to remember watching a BBC kids TV programme called “Play School”, sorry! )

The International Space Station is in the news again, big time. Not because its construction is nearly complete; not because it is now close to becoming a fully-functioning, international scientific laboratory; not even because President “Constellation-Killer” Obama has just secured its future for another decade at least. No. The ISS is all over the TV and internet news sites like Katie Price over ITV2 because it has this huge, shiny new “observation dome” window, which offers its crews “breathtaking views of the Earth below”.

The fitting and grand unveiling of the new “cupola” – which is, come on, truth be told, more like one piece of an egg box than an “observation dome” – is everywhere on t’internet. It’s all across the spaceflight forums, and on Facebook and Twitter too. A couple of hours ago I myself was sitting here at this computer, watching NASA TV coverage of the first astronauts to drift up into the cupola and look outside. The images were genuinely stunning – as the video camera swept and panned from right to left NASA TV viewers were treated to gorgeous views of the space station exterior, then the docked shuttle Endeavour…

…and finally the glorious, glorious blue and white Earth, which looked absolutely HUGE! Pictures taken off NASA TV are now everywhere, and this image “tweeted” back to Earth by  one of the ISS crew has already had over 12,000 views…

Doesn’t this tell us something fundamental about the public’s real interest in space? There’s a message here, and it’s this: “We want to know what we’d see if WE were there!”

And this is part of the reason why I always argue – often in the face of very hostile opposition – that while spacerobes are very useful, very effecient and very cost effective ways of gathering information, nothing, NOTHING can compare with a real human’s eye view of something Out There.

I have found over the years that the most positive reactions from my Outreach talk audiences are to images taken by cameras showing a genuine human view, simply because the audience can actually identify with them. The Kaguya spaceprobe sent back thousands of achingly beautiful, pin-sharp, crystal-clear HD images of the Earth shining above the charred bar-b-q briquette of the Moon, but they haven’t entered the public consciousness in the same way that the famous and iconic “Earthrise” image has. Why? Because that image was taken by a human being, leaning towards a window, with a camera, that’s why, and everyone who sees it can put themselves in the photographer’s place inside that Apollo capsule.

In orbit around Mars right now are several spacecraft which take and send back unbelievably detailed images of the Red Planet’s surface, but they aren’t regularly shown in the media, and when I show them in one of my Outreach talks I can tell the audience aren’t excessively impressed by them. Ah, but when I put up one of the images returned by the twin Mars rovers, Spirit and Opportunity, they literally amaze and delight people. Why? Why are the pictures sent back by the two rovers so adored and are praised and drooled over so much by millions? Mainly, I think, because they are taken by cameras mounted on a mast that gives them a roughly human view. When we see an image like this, of Concepcion Crater…

…it strikes a chord with us because we can imagine actually seeing that view through our helmet’s visor as we stand on Mars. But HiRISE images of boulders rolling down the side of a martian crater, or Mars Express images of meandering valleys and chaotic terrain don’t call to us in the same way.

Spaceprobes can take images. Only people can see places, drink them in in all their beauty and communicate that beauty to others. This has to be true. If it wasn’t, if pictures taken by machines were just as good, just as worthy, just as emotionally-engaging as pictures taken by people, then no-one would bother to climb Everest or even go hill-walking here in the Lake District, because everyone would be content to just go online and look at images returned by a webcam set up “up there”. But that’s not enough. And that’s why people risk their lives to trek up K2, or hike up Skiddaw and Cat Bells; they want to see, with their own eyes, the view from the top.

And this is why I firmly believe that there’ll be no real surge in public interest in, or public support for, manned space exploration until astronauts start actually GOING somewhere and SEEING somewhere new with their own eyes, lifting a camera up to their spaceship window and taking a picture of it, to share with the rest of us back home.

So, this cupola isn’t just a fancy window. It will change not just the way ISS crews see, and appreciate, the Earth, both whilst working and in their freetime; it will also change the way people down here think of what it’s like to be “up there”.

The best thing NASA could do now is regularly set up a video camera inside that cupola, point it out the window towards Earth, and broadcast the view ‘through the window’ to the world live over the web. That would be a wonderful, wonderful thing.

I wonder if they’ll do it?

And I wonder if one day astronauts in orbit will have a window like this one, which was seen in the much-derided but also much-loved TV sci-fi drama series “Defying Gravity”…

Now THAT’s a window! 🙂