It’s tiny out there…it’s inconsequential. It’s ironic that we had come to study the Moon and it was really discovering the Earth.

William Anders, Apollo 8, quoted in the 2008 Discovery TV series When We Left Earth.

Yesterday I had the pleasure of listening to Dutch astronaut André Kuipers (European Space Agency astronaut, 204 days in space for mission DELTA (2004) & Expedition 30/31 (2011/2012)). A very inspiring man with an inspiring story, and he tells it well.

The Apollo 8 spaceflight mission was the first manned spacecraft to leave Earth orbit, reach the Earth’s Moon, orbit it and return safely to Earth. Astronauts Frank Borman, James Lovell, and Lunar William Anders became the first humans to travel beyond low Earth orbit, the first to see Earth as a whole planet, the first to directly see the far side of the Moon, and then the first to witness Earthrise. What struck me most about the Apollo 8 spaceflight mission is exactly this shift of perspective, so well formulated in the Anders quote above.

André Kuipers took many pictures from up above; some 500.000. Some where used for a timelaps such as this beauty here, with a spectacular view on northern light (aurora borealis) from above:

But I find the epistemological aspects and related philosophical questions even more interesting. In philosophy and science one conducts thought experiments or creates experiments in which certain variables are controlled and manipulated. But what a scientific adventure it must be, if you are able to physically enter the laboratory called space, in which many variables, like gravity, are missing. To learn the scope of the effect this has on human beings and the way we expect our machines and tooling to work. Under these circumstances one is required to innovate to adapt. Daily routines like sleeping and moving around need to be altered. The body reacts in unexpected, but explainable, ways, due to the lack of gravity. The fundamental assumption in Aristotelian physics was that the natural state of sublunary matter is rest. Rest, provided by gravity. The absence of gravity makes the blood go to your head, causing at least nausea. The absence of gravity has an impact on the stability and thus the function of the vertebrae, André explained.

One final example of innovation to adapt, was André’s proposal to introduce a 3D Printer on the International Space Station. Instead of flying objects to the ISS; why not design them on earth and create them om the 3D printer inside the International Space Station. Very cool idea indeed. I’d like to think that the communication between earth and ISS in this respect is accompanied by the command: ‘beam me up!’.

André inspired not only me yesterday – of this I’m sure. One of the people who received the passion for science and research as well was my own daughter, who was given the honour of presenting André Kuipers the complimentary flowers and shaking his hand.

André Kuipers

Photo credits: Stefanie Uit den Boogaard. See her site.