"I would say it’s definitely a spiritual experience – the idea that everybody that has ever lived has been down on that planet you’re looking at and just the few of you are the only ones who aren’t there."
Dan Barry is a former NASA astronaut and a veteran of three space flights, four spacewalks and two trips to the International Space Station.
He says that being in space changes you – the earth looks incredible, especially at night when the city lights come out and you realise how much humanity has changed our planet. He's also seen some stunning views of New Zealand.
Some listener’s questions:
Are you allowed to be called an astronaut if you haven’t been into space?
The technical definition of an ‘astronaut’ is someone who has been over 150 miles or 100 km. However, when you’re selected by NASA you spend a bit of time being an astronaut candidate. When you finish all that training you get the NASA title of ‘astronaut’ before you fly.
Is it competitive?
It’s competitive to get in, but I would say it’s very co-operate when you’re there. In fact, the whole point of the training, I think, is to get a crew to the point where they trust each other with their lives. I wouldn’t go outside to a spacewalk with someone I wasn’t 100 percent sure would make sure I got in before they got in.
Is it a bunch of high achievers elbowing each other to make the cut?
Not at all. The selection process looks for people that tare good at teamwork. No one person can do that job and that’s recognised by the crew. It’s really an arm inarm cooperative adventure.
People ask me what’s the best thing about space flying. My first flight I would have said views of the earth, my second flight I would have said my ability to fly like superman, but after my third flight I have to say it’s the camaraderie, it’s the bonds that you make with the other people that you have this incredible adventure with that really last.
Does being space and seeing earth make you more fond of humans and of our home?
Well, it certainly changes you. First of all, the view of earth from above the sky, no camera shows you. If you want to see the green of the Amazon jungle and the tan of the Namibian desert and the incredible blues of the atmosphere you really have to go to see it with your eyes.
The thing that reveals human presence on earth, from space, is not much during the day. Cities are just like little smudges. But at night when the city lights come up, it’s just spectacular. And that’s when you see humanity change the image of the planet from space. That’s inspiring.
Are there any cities that look particularly spectacular from space?
Well, you’re always looking for your home town [at that time Barry’s was Houston, Texas]. However I have to say that I specifically looked for New Zealand. I’ve seen Auckland at night and you guys are beautiful. I’ve taken a lot of pictures during the day of New Zealand. When I was in space I specifically said ‘Someday I need to get there’ so I’m really happy to actually be here and fulfilling that.
Are you aware of astronauts experience profound spiritual change in space or would you like to comment on your own experience?
Everybody has their own reaction. I would say it’s definitely a spiritual experience – the idea that everybody that has ever lived has been down on that planet you’re looking at and just the few of you are the only ones who aren’t there. Then you look the other way an you recognise there’s hundreds of billions of stars in this galaxy and hundreds of billions of galaxies and you contemplate the insignifance of the one little tiny place we are and frankly the fragility of the one little tiny place we are. With all of humanity in this one little boat together, you’d think we could get along a little better.
Dan Barry retired from NASA in 2005 and started his own company, Denbar Robotics, which creates robotic assistants and devices for people with disabilities.