After three missions to space and 2,500 trips around the Earth, astronaut Chris Hadfield (perhaps best known, outside astronaut circles, for his amazing cover of Space Oddity) ended up with a staggering 45,000 photographs from orbit.
Hadfield tweeted some of the pictures from space, and then spent hours sorting through image after image–many of which he’d never seen while he was in the space station, since the photos were directly downloaded to Houston. He collected the best pictures into a new book called You Are Here: Around the World in 92 Minutes.
It’s not meant to be a typical coffee table book. “I didn’t want people to idly leaf through it and say, ‘Oh, that’s pretty,'” Hadfield says. “I wanted it to be, ‘This is ugly, this is weird, this is really interesting, and wow, that’s not how I thought that looked.’ I wanted the pictures to be inherently clear on what the world really looks like.”
Most of us, Hadfield points out, have only hazy mental images of other parts of the world. “People talk globally, but very few people see globally, and they don’t really think globally,” he says. “You become quite familiar with the region that you run into all the time. But how do you actually picture the Sudan? What’s your mental image of Patagonia, or of Auckland, New Zealand? What do you actually picture in your mind when someone says those places? And how do you make good judgments if you’ve never actually even seen them?”
The book takes readers on a virtual tour of one full orbit around the Earth, and includes images like the desert in Mauritania, wetlands in Argentina, oil and gas sites in New Mexico, and a lit-up nighttime view of Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. “If I was at the window with someone who had never been around the world, what would I want to show them?” he says of how organized the project. “Where couldn’t I help myself from grabbing them by the shoulder and saying, “Hey, look at that’?”
The pictures weren’t easy to take, and some came after several failed attempts. “You’re at the window, you have your toes hooked underneath the hatch door, you wedge your toes in there so your body doesn’t start floating around,” Hadfield explains. “You’re holding a camera sort of like a delicate bird in your hand because it’s weightless, it’s sort of effortlessly held between a couple of fingertips, and you’re looking around. Suddenly you see something, you click, and you think, wow, I captured that, or crap, I missed it, and make a note to try again the next time it comes around.”
“It happens so fast you don’t have time to react yourself,” he adds. “You’re sort of like stenographer of the world. Then later on hopefully you’ll find the time to go through the pictures and see what you’ve really captured.”
A picture of Venice, a city that’s often cloudy or hazy, took several tries. “That particular picture caught the light just right so you can see the pink ochre of the roofs of Venice from space,” Hadfield says. “To me, it told the story most clearly. There’s so much history in the picture…you can see the little line coming out from the mainland, and think about the improbability of Venice existing.”
Even after years of training in geology and geography–including obscure details like the history of agricultural patterns in places like France or China–Hadfield still continually learned new things about the Earth as he looked out the window.
“I’d make notes to myself: What’s the name of this island in Turkey that looks like an exclamation mark, or why is this strange canal dug to the south of this river in Brazil?” he says. “It’s just a continuing curiosity and delight in seeing things with better understanding.”
The shots are something that a satellite probably wouldn’t capture. “If you just mount a robot that’s clicking every second, sometimes it will get lucky, but most of the time it’s going to be like a photocopy of the world,” Hadfield says. “It’s like a robot painting versus an artist–it’s the human element that matters. The Earth is beautiful enough on its own; what matters to us is what’s intriguing or thought-provoking or revolting, or whatever. That’s what I was trying to capture.”
Proceeds from the sale of the book will be donated to the Michael J. Fox Foundation to support Parkinson’s research.