What Eight Astronauts Saw When They Looked at Earth

National Geographic’s miniseries ‘One Strange Rock’ reminds us our home planet is breathtaking.

Nick Jordan/National Geographic

There’s been no shortage of shows this century seeking to dissect and expound on the strange natural mysteries of Earth. David Attenborough managed to jumpstart things with the BBC’s Blue Planet back in the day, and then with Planet Earth. Now, every season seems to herald a new mini-series focused on showing exactly how wondrous and unique our third rock from the sun really is.

One Strange Rock, National Geographic Channel’s ten-episode series produced by Darren Aronofsky and Will Smith (who also doubles as a narrator) is just the latest in this entry, but with a twist: Each episode is hosted by an astronaut who has been to space, using the stories of what they’ve seen and heard and felt while drifting weightlessly in Earth’s orbit to regale Earthlings about the unique home we have, unlike anything we’re likely to discover out in the rest of the universe.

“It might be the weirdest place in the universe,” Smith says about Earth in the series’ opening scene. Each astronaut discusses a specific theme or concept critical to our understanding of the planet’s evolution, and how it’s helped lead to the human species’ dominance of this world.

“It’s like I lived my life in a little dark room and somebody flipped on a light,” astronaut Peggy Whitson, the record holder for the most cumulative time spent in space, says at one point.

Take “Gasp,” the premiere episode of One Strange Rock. Hosted by Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield, “Gasp” essentially tells the story of oxygen on Earth. The episode demonstrates not just how the oxygen cycle moves through the smallest microbes to the tallest reaches of the atmosphere and sustains most life throughout the planet. Learning to “gasp” allowed us to evolve into complex creatures, but it also comes with severe biological limitations. Breathing oxygen is both a gift and a curse.

Hadfield drives this point acutely home through a story of his own, recounting the time during a spacewalk when his helmet became contaminated by some sort of anti-fog solution and caused him to lose the ability to see for several minutes. The solution to clear up the problem was to release his own oxygen out from his helmet into space, and flush out the contaminant.

For Hadfield, breathing suddenly transformed from something so automatic and natural he never gave it a second’s thought to a precarious action requiring his full attention. Oxygen, which is essentially Hadfield’s lifeline, is now hissing out of his helmet, and should this plan fail, he’ll be gasping furiously for air.

“That’s when you really appreciate the significance of that thin blue line,” Hadfield tells The Daily Beast, referring to the boundary between Earth’s atmosphere and outer space. That small division is the difference between living in a comfortable blanket of freely-available oxygen and a bleak vacuum where your ability to breathe could vanish in mere seconds.

As a show about the natural world, One Strange Rock is offers the same lessons its contemporaries do (the Earth is strange and wonderful and we should have more reverence and respect for it, or something like that), but it’s fascinating to see it arrive there through the tales of astronauts.

It’s like I lived my life in a little dark room and somebody flipped on a light.
Peggy Whitson, astronaut, 'One Strange Rock'

“It’s important that people see the world differently, and weigh that into their decision making,” says Hadfield. “The perspective that we get orbiting the world in 92 minutes kind of inevitably gives that to us.”

Watching the planet’s glaciers in full; algal blooms in the ocean pluming off the coasts; volcanic eruptions in the mountains and fires in the amazon; snowstorms and hurricanes and typhoons making landfall; dust storms stretching out across the equator and making their way across entire oceans—astronauts are able to bear witness to how intertwined and interconnected the Earth’s regions and its inhabitants.

“It’s all just so wonderfully unlikely,” Hadfield says. “And yet it’s here.”

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Unlikeliness is a common theme for each episode. In the episode “Awakening,” astronaut Leland Melvin explores the evolution of the brain and how this multi-neuronal structure has learned to grant humans the ability to create new languages for communication, design and build entire ships that exist in space, and even, as happened to Melvin, rewire itself in order to regain lost abilities like hearing.

“We still don’t understand how our brain works in this magnificent way,” he tells The Daily Beast. For such an organ to take shape, even over billions of years of evolution, is a mathematical miracle.

Sometimes, that rarity coalesces with fragility, spelling out gloom and doom. “Storm,” hosted by astronaut Nicole Stott, explores how violent natural events are basically the a global version of a forest fire: clearing out life as we know it, but from the ashes new life arises. If an asteroid hadn’t hit a specific sulfur reserve and thrown toxic elements into the air which killed off the dinosaurs, humans might have never evolved to take their place.

It’s all just so wonderfully unlikely. And yet it’s here.
Chris Hadfield, astronaut, 'One Strange Rock'

As Smith points out, this asteroid had been traveling through space for billions of years before it hit Earth. And almost impossibly, “if this rock had arrived just a few seconds later, it would have crashed out in the deep blue ocean.” No bullseye into the sulfur reserve, and no massive extinction. The Earth is capable of weathering extinction impacts, but life is fragile, and prone to disappearing in the blink of an eye.

That dichotomy is what is effectively at the core of One Strange Rock. The show uses National Geographic’s greatest asset—unparalleled images and footage of Earth—to push forward the very important lesson that the planet is a witness to a long geological and biological history. Yet most of the life, humans included, are delicate spectators. Yes, we’re tearing the planet up with climate change, and it might devastate us and lead to our ruin, but Earth will still be here, and life will find a way to move on without us.

The show is certainly not without its faults—different segments in each episode don’t always neatly fit in the overall theme being explored, and sometimes it feels like Smith and Aronofsky are fitting a square peg in a round hole just because the visuals are so stunning. But there’s no question they succeed in delivering their overall message; Earth is a one of a kind place, and it seems the farther one gets away from, the stranger and more miraculous it looks.

One Strange Rock premieres on March 26 on the National Geographic Channel.