The best photos of Earth taken from space

The retired astronaut Chris Hadfield explains the challenges and joys of being a photographer in space.

Chris Hadfield: Life on board a spaceship is so busy. People just don’t know. Mission Control schedules your time, there’s this line moving across your computer screen that shows what you’re doing every five minutes for your entire six months on a spaceship.

So it is a dictated and controlled environment up there, and nowhere does it ever say, “Go look out the window.” But you just can’t help yourself. Every time you get ahead of that line, if you give yourself an extra three or four minutes you float through the station on the handrails, you pull yourself down into the cupola window, and you take another look at the world.

And it is so many things all at once. It’s beautiful—it’s just raw, constantly changing beauty pouring by and around you.

It’s instructional: You learn so much about the world. You see how everything actually fits together, and the history of it, and the geology and the geography of it.

But it’s also a feeling of great privilege, of like awe, of like you’ve just walked into the most magnificent art gallery on earth, or into the Sistine Chapel, or into a rain forest or somewhere where suddenly you’re just overwhelmed with the place that you are. It’s an amazing stolen moment, and I stole as many of those as I could.

As astronauts we train more than anybody knows. I had photographers train me. I got qualified to not just use a 35 mm digital camera but Hasselblad cameras with 70 mm film and Aeroflex cameras—and I became an IMAX cameraman and helped make two IMAX movies—and Linhof cameras and the whole gamut of complex photography. With all of those photographers talking about not just portraiture and not just inside, but how to take a good picture of the world and what parts of the world we haven’t seen yet. Some places have a lot of cloud cover, and maybe one day you’ll get a great picture of the Panama Canal or a part of the Amazon that’s never been photographed because it’s always so cloudy.

So you are hyper-prepared to be one of the world’s photographers up there. You’re really trying to make sure that you’re technically competent with the camera, but you’re also artistically capable of understanding how to compose a picture, how to frame it properly, how to recognize something that’s worth taking a picture of.

And you don’t always get it right. I mean the National Geographic photographers, they take thousands of pictures for every one that makes it into the magazine. Same for us. But the world is a very generous photography subject, and you have the best tripod in existence, so it’s a great place to take pictures.

I was lucky enough to fly in space three times. I flew the Space Shuttle twice; I was the pilot of the Russian Soyuz on my third flight; I helped build two space stations; I’ve done a couple spacewalks. And throughout all of those 166 days in space, 2600 times around the world, every chance I could I would try and get to the window and take a picture, because who wouldn’t? It’s just too beautiful and rare a site to ignore.

And so when you total it all up after all of those spaceflights, including while I was outside on the spacewalks, I think I took about 45,000 pictures. And a lot of them are terrible, just things going by or the glare of the atmosphere or out of focus, you’re just trying to make sure that somewhere in there the pictures are good. And what do you do with 45,000 pictures? No one is going to sit down and look at them all.

So a couple of years after I returned from my third space flight I went through all 45,000 and as I went through the 45,000 I would flag oh yeah that’s a good picture, that’s a good picture, that’s a good picture. So I ended up with sort of a nice smaller subset of worthwhile pictures that should be looked at.

And then I thought, if someone was floating next to me at the window of the spaceship, what would I want to show them? If we were going around the world once, where would I want to go, “Hey! Look at that! Wait to you see this”?

“Wait till you see the great eye of the desert on the edge of the Sahara. Or wait until you see the Skeleton Coast ,or the border between the United States and Mexico, or all of the interesting parts of the world that are different than you expect to see.

And I went through all those pictures, the best pictures that I had taken, and chose 150 I thought that really showed the story of the world, and those are my absolute best. Trying to distill this whole planet down to 150 pictures is crazy, it’s an insult to the world, but it was the best I could do to let people actually see what the world looks like. I called it You Are Here: Around the World in 92 Minutes. But my whole thought at the time was, “If I had a good friend sitting next to me, what parts of the world should they see?”

Flying three missions to space, the now-retired astronaut Chris Hadfield took around 45,000 photos. He shares how difficult it is to take pictures in space when your day is highly structured. But the times you can do it - there's a chance to capture something magical.

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Political division is nothing new. Throughout American history there have been numerous flare ups in which the political arena was more than just tense but incideniary. In a letter addressed to William Hamilton in 1800, Thomas Jefferson once lamented about how an emotional fervor had swept over the populace in regards to a certain political issue at the time. It disturbed him greatly to see how these political issues seemed to seep into every area of life and even affect people's interpersonal relationships. At one point in the letter he states:

"I never considered a difference of opinion in politics, in religion, in philosophy, as cause for withdrawing from a friend."

Today, we Americans find ourselves in a similar situation, with our political environment even more splintered due to a number of factors. The advent of mass digital media, siloed identity-driven political groups, and a societal lack of understanding of basic discursive fundamentals all contribute to the problem.

Civil discourse has fallen to an all time low.

The question that the American populace needs to ask itself now is: how do we fix it?


Discursive fundamentals need to be taught to preserve free expression

In a 2017 Free Speech and Tolerance Survey by Cato, it was found that 71% of Americans believe that political correctness had silenced important discussions necessary to our society. Many have pointed to draconian university policies regarding political correctness as a contributing factor to this phenomenon.

It's a great irony that, colleges, once true bastions of free-speech, counterculture and progressiveness, have now devolved into reactionary tribal politics.

Many years ago, one could count on the fact that universities would be the first places where you could espouse and debate any controversial idea without consequence. The decline of staple subjects that deal with the wisdom of the ancients, historical reference points, and civic discourse could be to blame for this exaggerated partisanship boiling on campuses.

Young people seeking an education are given a disservice when fed biased ideology, even if such ideology is presented with the best of intentions. Politics are but one small sliver for society and the human condition at large. Universities would do well to instead teach the principles of healthy discourse and engagement across the ideological spectrum.

The fundamentals of logic, debate and the rich artistic heritage of western civilization need to be the central focus of an education. They help to create a well-rounded citizen that can deal with controversial political issues.

It has been found that in the abstract, college students generally support and endorse the first amendment, but there's a catch when it comes to actually practicing it. This was explored in a Gallup survey titled: Free Expression on Campus: What college students think about First amendment issues.

In their findings the authors state:

"The vast majority say free speech is important to democracy and favor an open learning environment that promotes the airing of a wide variety of ideas. However, the actions of some students in recent years — from milder actions such as claiming to be threatened by messages written in chalk promoting Trump's candidacy to the most extreme acts of engaging in violence to stop attempted speeches — raise issues of just how committed college students are to
upholding First Amendment ideals.

Most college students do not condone more aggressive actions to squelch speech, like violence and shouting down speakers, although there are some who do. However, students do support many policies or actions that place limits on speech, including free speech zones, speech codes and campus prohibitions on hate speech, suggesting that their commitment to free speech has limits. As one example, barely a majority think handing out literature on controversial issues is "always acceptable."

With this in mind, the problems seen on college campuses are also being seen on a whole through other pockets of society and regular everyday civic discourse. Look no further than the dreaded and cliche prospect of political discussion at Thanksgiving dinner.

Talking politics at Thanksgiving dinner

As a result of this increased tribalization of views, it's becoming increasingly more difficult to engage in polite conversation with people possessing opposing viewpoints. The authors of a recent Hidden Tribes study broke down the political "tribes" in which many find themselves in:

  • Progressive Activists: younger, highly engaged, secular, cosmopolitan, angry.
  • Traditional Liberals: older, retired, open to compromise, rational, cautious.
  • Passive Liberals: unhappy, insecure, distrustful, disillusioned.
  • Politically Disengaged: young, low income, distrustful, detached, patriotic, conspiratorial
  • Moderates: engaged, civic-minded, middle-of-the-road, pessimistic, Protestant.
  • Traditional Conservatives: religious, middle class, patriotic, moralistic.
  • Devoted Conservatives: white, retired, highly engaged, uncompromising,
    Patriotic.

Understanding these different viewpoints and the hidden tribes we may belong to will be essential in having conversations with those we disagree with. This might just come to a head when it's Thanksgiving and you have a mix of many different personalities, ages, and viewpoints.

It's interesting to note the authors found that:

"Tribe membership shows strong reliability in predicting views across different political topics."

You'll find that depending on what group you identify with, that nearly 100 percent of the time you'll believe in the same way the rest of your group constituents do.

Here are some statistics on differing viewpoints according to political party:

  • 51% of staunch liberals say it's "morally acceptable" to punch Nazis.
  • 53% of Republicans favor stripping U.S. citizenship from people who burn the American flag.
  • 51% of Democrats support a law that requires Americans use transgender people's preferred gender pronouns.
  • 65% of Republicans say NFL players should be fired if they refuse to stand for the anthem.
  • 58% of Democrats say employers should punish employees for offensive Facebook posts.
  • 47% of Republicans favor bans on building new mosques.

Understanding the fact that tribal membership indicates what you believe, can help you return to the fundamentals for proper political engagement

Here are some guidelines for civic discourse that might come in handy:

  • Avoid logical fallacies. Essentially at the core, a logical fallacy is anything that detracts from the debate and seeks to attack the person rather than the idea and stray from the topic at hand.
  • Practice inclusion and listen to who you're speaking to.
  • Have the idea that there is nothing out of bounds for inquiry or conversation once you get down to an even stronger or new perspective of whatever you were discussing.
  • Keep in mind the maxim of : Do not listen with the intent to reply. But with the intent to understand.
  • We're not trying to proselytize nor shout others down with our rhetoric, but come to understand one another again.
  • If we're tied too closely to some in-group we no longer become an individual but a clone of someone else's ideology.

Civic discourse in the divisive age

Debate and civic discourse is inherently messy. Add into the mix an ignorance of history, rabid politicization and debased political discourse, you can see that it will be very difficult in mending this discursive staple of a functional civilization.

There is still hope that this great divide can be mended, because it has to be. The Hidden Tribes authors at one point state:

"In the era of social media and partisan news outlets, America's differences have become
dangerously tribal, fueled by a culture of outrage and taking offense. For the combatants,
the other side can no longer be tolerated, and no price is too high to defeat them.
These tensions are poisoning personal relationships, consuming our politics and
putting our democracy in peril.


Once a country has become tribalized, debates about contested issues from
immigration and trade to economic management, climate change and national security,
become shaped by larger tribal identities. Policy debate gives way to tribal conflicts.
Polarization and tribalism are self-reinforcing and will likely continue to accelerate.
The work of rebuilding our fragmented society needs to start now. It extends from
re-connecting people across the lines of division in local communities all the way to
building a renewed sense of national identity: a bigger story of us."

We need to start teaching people how to approach subjects from less of an emotional or baseless educational bias or identity, especially in the event that the subject matter could be construed to be controversial or uncomfortable.

This will be the beginning of a new era of understanding, inclusion and the defeat of regressive philosophies that threaten the core of our nation and civilization.