NASA astronaut Mike Massimino’s travel experiences aren’t just limited to Planet Earth. Here, he talks about spacewalking 350 miles above the planet, cycling around London and the destinations aliens are most likely to visit
Planet Earth (Dreamstime)
To be spacewalking 350 miles up at the Hubble Space Telescope during the day and looking down at the curve of our planet, that is my favourite place to be.
The Hubble space telescope is about the size of a school bus. It’s above the atmosphere and at around a 26 degree inclination to the equator.
When you spacewalk, instead of looking through the window, you get the view of the planet in its entirety. The sheer beauty of it is amazing. It looks like paradise. The thought that went through my mind when I spacewalked and looked down on Earth was that this must be the view from Heaven. Then it was replaced by another thought: “No, this is what Heaven must look like."
During the day, I could see the planet more clearly, with the clouds above the oceans and continents. I saw the greenness surrounding the Earth. I couldn’t see particular buildings but I could see population centres.
The Earth as a whole looks magnificent. It all runs together and you can’t see the borders. It’s not like looking at a map or a globe. You see that countries come together and borders are combined. You don’t see separation - you just see it all as one beautiful planet. That is the most compelling thing - you see it as a unified whole.
Earth at night from space (Dreamstime)
My second favourite place is also in space: on the flight deck of the shuttle, looking through the windows at Earth at night.
What’s beautiful about the darkness in space is that the stars look like perfect points of light. They don’t twinkle at night in space, because you’re above the atmosphere, so you can see these perfect points of light, gas clouds, the Milky Way, constellations. The moon looks three dimensional, like a basket ball, and you can see the craters.
At night, it becomes very magical in space. The planet has a beautiful greyish colour and the cities light up very clearly. Cities like London and New York certainly stand out. I saw them from a distance, but they shined like diamonds in the night sky as you fly over the world.
The prosperity and civilisation was evident, compared to flying over deserts or countries that are less developed and were darker. London and New York were two giant circles of light over the Earth. If 'travellers' were coming in from another planet or galaxy at night, I think they’d be drawn to London and New York City.
You can also see thunderstorms at night, with lightning lighting up the clouds below you, and you can see shooting stars burning up in the atmosphere. The atmosphere below you shows a greenish blue line, very thin, out on the horizon, so you can see how thin the atmosphere is.
Cyclist in London (Dreamstime)
Being outside and enjoying the sights of London on a bicycle has been my favourite thing as a tourist. On my last trip, I rode around the city, passing Big Ben and Westminster Abbey. I stopped to take a look inside, had a drink at the pub, sat by the river and watched boats go by.
I like the United Kingdom’s history, and I’m most familiar with London. I’ve gone to many of the museums. The look of the city is very unique to me. The age of the buildings, like Buckingham Palace and the Tower of London, and the history on every turn in any street is amazing.
You can see the history and influence that the United Kingdom has had around the world, including my home in America, in so many different ways, like governance, science, mathematics and traditions. The British traditions are just magnificent. I also find people there are very pleasant.
Lighthouse in Sagres (Dreamstime)
Sagres in Portugal is a beautiful place with sheer cliffs and ocean views. It’s the most western part of Europe and it’s very windy. It has an endless view of the ocean in every direction; from Cape Saint Vincent, you can only see ocean and horizon.
500 years ago, great explorers like Christopher Columbus and Vasco da Gama were in Sagres to explore the New World. They were educated there, studied at navigation schools and launched ships from there.
For me, Sagres is like the space port of the old times. It is like when we launch people from Cape Canaveral at the Kennedy Space Centre in Florida to go into space. It’s the Kennedy Space Centre of that time.
People in central park (Dreamstime)
I really love New York. I grew up on Long Island, outside New York City, and now I’m back living in Manhattan. The city has a certain energy and excitement to it that is like no other place. I like going for a run in Central Park or riding a bike along the river.
The restaurants, the food and the cultures are from all over the world. The immigrant populations that have come over the years have made their marks. Each block is different but everything goes together in a wonderful blend that I love.
I find the city so interesting and energising. There is a certain electricity in the air when you walk down the street from one block to the next, with interesting people, conversations and information. The museums and art works are wonderful, as is the architecture and the history, even though the history isn’t perhaps as old as in London or the UK.
Spaceman: An Astronaut’s Unlikely Journey To Unlock The Secrets Of The Universe by Mike Massimino is out now, published by Simon & Schuster (£20). For more info, see www.simonandschuster.co.uk.
Main image: Mike Massimino (Spaceman)