A View from Spaceship Earth

Image: Current occupants of the ISS, Astronaut Christina Koch, Cosmonaut Alexey Nikolaevich Ovchinen, and Astronaut Nick Hague prior to their trip to the International Space Station. (Photo from phys.org)

On July 15, 2019 I watched the International Space Station (ISS) fly across the sky above my home. It was a small bright light, moving too fast to be a star or planet. I recognized it because an app on my smartphone alerted me to it: ISS HD Live: Live Earth View. (Link is to Google Play. Apple users are on their own, but I’m certain there is an Apple version.)

I am fascinated by the ISS. The first crew took off on Oct 31, 2000 from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan at 10:53 a.m. local time time. Since then, it has become the longest uninterrupted human presence in an orbiting lab. The station began as a shared project and it continues as an enormous cooperation among a large group of entities:

As of January 2018, 230 individuals from 18 countries have visited the International Space Station. Top participating countries include the United States (145 people) and Russia (46 people). Astronaut time and research time on the space station is allocated to space agencies according to how much money or resources (such as modules or robotics) that they contribute. The ISS includes contributions from 15 nations. NASA (United States), Roscosmos (Russia) and the European Space Agency are the major partners of the space station who contribute most of the funding; the other partners are the Japanese Aerospace Exploration Agency and the Canadian Space Agency.

– Howell, Elizabeth, “International Space Station: Facts, History and Tracking,” Accessed 7/17/2019

While I stood in my garden staring at the tiny light in the sky, I was moved by the fact that despite whatever tensions are underway here on Earth, the people who occupy the ISS manage to live peacefully for their time there. They do so because lives depend on it: it is a fragile little assembly, aging fast, and if they do not cooperate with one another, they’ll all die.

We here on “Spaceship Earth” have not yet internalized the same sense of urgency. The same nations that cooperate on the ISS fail to cooperate on too many matters of survival: climate change, international trade, respect for one another, etc.

In the words of a rookie astronaut who is on the station at this writing, Christina Koch:

The trio and their three-man backup crew spoke of cooperation rather than competition following the mission seen by some as the dawn of an era of commercial space travel.

Koch, a 40-year-old rookie, said the SpaceX success was a “great example of what we’ve been doing for a very long time.”

“And that is cooperating among partners and making things that are very difficult look easy.”

“Astronauts who survived Soyuz scare ready for new launch despite glitches” on Phys.org, accessed 7/17/2019.

As the little light disappeared over my roofline, I whispered a prayer for the residents of the ISS, and for all the residents of our other, larger spaceship:

May we recognize and respect the fragility of both our homes, and keep them safe. Amen.

Image: The view from the ISS. (Photo by skeeze from Pixabay.)
Advertisements

Climate Change and Torah

Image: A California poppy, in my yard.

Climate change is doing a number on my neighborhood. Today the temperature was over 100°F for sure. If WeatherUnderground.com can be believed, the high was 107°F. I decided not to believe it.

It is June in the SF Bay Area. June is legendarily chilly here. Mark Twain joked that the coldest winter he ever experienced was in June in San Francisco. No more, apparently.

What does this have to do with Judaism? several things:

1. We learn from a midrash that when the Creator entrusted the Earth to Adam and Eve, God said to them, “Take care of it. It’s the only one I’m going to give you.”

2. We are commanded, bal tashkeit, “do not waste.” The verse in question has to do with trees, but our sages expanded it to a commandment to be careful in our use of natural resources.

3. We are commanded to preserve life. The strictest form of that commandment has to do with responding to someone in immediate danger of death. In a heat wave, we are responsible as a community to make sure everyone has water and a cool place to go. Alameda County is doing its best but I am concerned about the huge number of homeless people, and elders.

I hear a lot on the media about why we can’t do anything about climate change. The Green New Deal was pooh-poohed by conservatives, and they talk about what other countries are or are not doing, or they say the whole thing is “fake news.” Environmental advocates have been less than diplomatic in their rhetoric, which I understand but “I told you so” never contributed to progress.

If you have personally never been affected by climate change, there are lots of places where you can see it in action: my house, most port cities, and the farms in the Midwest. Or you can take a cruise to the island nation of Kiribati, which is quickly submerging into the Pacific.

We have made a mess, folks. I’m as responsible as any individual. We need to change. We need to think in terms of what we CAN do. We need to quit using others’ behavior as an excuse. Because as the midrash teaches, this is the only world we’ve got.