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In which John Green considers the orbital sunrise, why humans make art, and why the cosmonaut Alexei Leonov drew home. Adapted from the podcast The Anthropocene Reviewed, which is also a book. You can get a signed copy and a bonus zine here:

The footage from space was created by Seán Doran using images from the internenational space station. Used with permission. You can see more of Seán's extraordinarily beautiful work here:

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Good morning Hank, it's Tuesday.

This is a story about space-walking cosmonauts and why we make art. I often think about this passage from "You are an Artist" about this 1515 etching of a rhinoceros by the artist Albrecht Dürer in which he depicts the animal as having literal plates of armor complete with rivets.

Dürer had never actually seen a rhinoceros. He had only read a description and seen a small sketch and the fact that his etching looks anything like a rhino is a real testament to his genius. But, in the places where Dürer's rhinoceros is different from an actual one, something else is betrayed about the human imagination which is we tend to fill in blank spaces or unknowns with guesses that are deeply shaped by our humanness. When Dürer read that rhinos had skin-like armor, he imagined sixteenth-century, European, human armor, because what else could he imagine?

Sort of by definition, it is hard to think about what we cannot imagine. But, perhaps art is one way to bridge that divide, and thinking about that makes me think about the first work of art made by a human in space. 

The international space station orbits Earth every 90 minutes and with each of these orbits, the sun rises from behind the Earth; darkness giving way to an arc of blue light which soon gives way to more colors. To hear space visitors talk of these orbital sunrises is to glimpse how amazing they must be. The American astronaut, Victor Glover, wrote of the bands of color "They remind me of the scripture in Psalm 30, 'weeping may endure for a night, but joy cometh in the morning.'" 

Many space travelers have written of experiencing so-called "orbital perspective" seeing the whole profoundly interconnected planet from afar, teeming with life vast and resilient and fragile and tiny. Astronaut May Jemison said that "in space, I feel more expansive, very connected to the universe" The Russian cosmonaut, Alexi Leonov wrote that "Looking back at our blue globe from such a distance profoundly changed my vision of space and time."

Leonov is most remembered today for taking the first spacewalk, but he also made the first space art. In March of 1965, when he was 30 years old, Leonov visited space with his friend and colleague, Pavel Belyayev. The two men orbited the Earth in a tiny spherical spacecraft that was just over two meters in diameter and so, they were only allowed a few personal belongings on the trip.

Leonov chose to bring a drawing pad and some colored pencils. He'd loved making art since childhood. He wanted to go to art school, but it was too expensive so he became a pilot. Their mission was known as Voskhod 2. Voskhod means sunrise in Russian. And, despite lasting for just over one day, this spaceflight contained quite a lot of firsts, not just the first spacewalk and the first art made in space, but also the first spacecraft landing to occur 1,500 miles off course after its occupants nearly died on several separate occasions.

The mission started out as planned, shortly after entering orbit, Leonov, wearing a spacesuit exited the Voskhod capsule via an airlock and floated in space connected to the spaceship only by a tether. The event was broadcast live on soviet radio and television and whenever my palms feel in need of a bit of sweat, I watch as Leonov pushes away from the spacecraft drifting into the void until his tether snaps taught.

After a few minutes of spacewalking, it was time for Leonov to reenter the spaceship, but there was a problem. His pressurized suit had dramatically expanded in the vacuum of space. In his memoirs, Leonov recalled "My feet had pulled away from my boots and my fingers from my gloves attached to the sleeves making it impossible to enter the airlock. The only solution was to reduce the pressure in my suit by opening the pressure valve and letting out a little oxygen at a time as I tried to inch inside the airlock." And so as his oxygen leeched out into the void Leonov tried to wedge himself back into the capsule, which he described as "an almost impossible maneuver."

This was not broadcast live on television. "From the moment our mission looked to be in jeopardy," Leonov wrote "transmissions from our spacecraft were suddenly suspended without explanation. In their place, Mozart's requiem was played again and again on state radio." The custom in the Soviet Union at this time was for such solemn music to play after a senior political figure had died but before an official announcement was made. Leonov's friends and family who of course knew what the music might mean waited for the news with no way of knowing what was happening miles above.

As his suit shrank and his oxygen dwindled, Leonov eventually managed to get back inside the capsule. He was drenched with sweat, breathless, and overwhelmed with adrenaline. His compatriot calmed him down, saying they had ninety minutes before they needed to eject the airlock. Maybe Alexei could use that time to rest or to write up a report of the spacewalk, but Leonov could neither sleep nor write. Instead to calm himself and to capture the moment, he took those minutes to make some art.

"I reached for my sketchpad and colored pencils and sat quietly drawing my impressions of the panorama I had seen while floating free in space. I tried to capture the different shades of charcoal rings that make up the Earth's atmosphere, the sunrise or air glow over the Earth's horizon, the blue belt covering the Earth's crust, and the spectrum of colors I had observed looking down at the globe."

The sketch is simple. It was made quickly in a weightless environment with simple drawing instruments, but it is also stunningly beautiful. It says something to me that the first art made by humans from outside of Earth's atmosphere depicts Earth's atmosphere. Leonov was astonished by the brightness of stars from space, but he did not draw that. Nor did he draw himself floating, looking up at the spaceship. He drew home. He drew what Mary Oliver memorably called this, "the one world we all belong to."

I will never see an orbital sunrise in real life. On many levels, I'm not cut out for space travel. An inner ear disorder has damaged my sense of balance, for starters, but also I'm not a pilot or an engineer or a billionaire. I tend to side with Eudora Welty on matters of adventure who once, after acknowledging she had lived a sheltered life added "A sheltered life can be a daring life as well, for all serious daring starts from within." My daring also generally ends within.

And so, I will only ever have descriptions and depictions of space. Like Albrecht Dürer and his rhinoceros, when it comes to orbital sunrises, I am wholly dependent upon words and images made by other people. And that is one gift of art. It can be a window, albeit not a fully transparent one, into other worlds and other lives.

After making the sketch of the orbital sunrise. Leonov returned to the business of space travel. He and Belyayev ejected the airlock which lead to an unexpected and uncontrolled spin of the aircraft. There was no longer the pleasure of a sunrise every 90 minutes. Now their spacecraft was spinning wildly with the sunlight streaming in from the window creating a strobe light effect.

On the ground, Mozart's Requiem played over and over on the radio while in space the emergencies multiplied. The automatic guidance system of their craft failed so the cosmonauts would have to manually choose a landing site. Leonov couldn't navigate toward the original site so, after extensive calculations made while wildly spinning in space, he chose a site 1,500 miles to the west in a vast wilderness. That way, if they crashed they at least wouldn't kill anyone on the ground.

They landed in a forest in two feet of snow with their escape hatch blocked by a tree that had fallen as the spacecraft barreled into it. It took the two cosmonauts hours of rocking the capsule back and forth from within to free the escape hatch and then they spent a very long and very cold night in the Siberian wilderness before rescuers arrived the next day. At last, the two men skied nine km with a rescue party to a site where a helicopter could land, and that is how the cosmonauts of Voskhod 2 survived, and with them the first picture of an orbital sunrise.

I like to look at Leonov's drawing when I am feeling exhausted by despair and drudgery, or when I feel the weight of longing and fear pressing in on my chest. I look at the picture and I think of all that had to happen for the drawing to exist. For Leonov to exist. For anything to exist. For me, art is a kind of landing site in the wilderness. Art is where I go when I do not know where else to go. Through art, paradoxes of consciousness resolve for me. I see what I will never see. I know what I will never know. And I survive what I will not survive. I will never see an orbital sunrise, but thanks to Alexi Leonov, I can still feel the wonder and consolation of it.

Hank, I'll see you on Friday.