One Strange Rock’s Jerry Linenger on stars, spacewalks, and the survival of our species.

This evening National Geographic launches its fifth episode from the 10-part series One Strange Rock. Hosted by Will Smith and a team of astronauts, the contemporary cinematic documentary explores life on Earth, our origins, and the creation of the universe. How it Works’ Charlie Evans caught up with Jerry Linenger, former NASA astronaut, who flew on the Space Shuttle and Space Station Mir logging over 50 million miles in orbit. His episode ‘Survival’, focuses on our survival as a species from the very first specks of life through to his own experiences survived the most severe fire ever aboard an orbiting spacecraft.

Thanks for taking the time to speak to us. We’ve really enjoyed the documentary so far and the exploration of the origins of our planet and the existence of life through the eyes of the people who have left our planet. What was your experience like working on the series?
It was fabulous. It was fun to be with other astronauts. I’ve been out of it for a little bit so working with those people, you get different perspectives. We have had the same shared experience, but there are some subtleties that come out when you’re a group of us all together, talking and reflecting. A lot of the time you’re so busy in space you don’t have time for that reflection and so it has been a very nice process.

Were there any differences between experiences that you noticed?
There were some differences. For example, doing a spacewalk. I felt like I was falling at 17,500 miles an hour. But I talked to another spacewalker and they never had that feeling because they are contained inside the space shuttle bay, or close enough to the Space Station that they don’t have that sensation that I had. It was those types of things.

One Strange Rock explores the creation the Earth. How did this happen for us to be there?
You need building blocks. No matter what you are trying to build or achieve or anything else, and one of the fascinating things that came out of this series, about a billion years, a huge time frame, a billion years after the big bang there were these stars – gigantic stars, about 10 times the size of our Sun, And those stars, at that time the Universe just had hydrogen and helium, but the stars were so desne that the temperature and presssure was able to squeese the hydrogen and helium and create the heavy elements. And the other part of that made it necessary that the stars were unstable. Over time they just blew apart and spewed all these heavy metals, different elements, into the universe, and eventually, as I sit here the calcium in my fingernails is from those explosions of those huge gigantic stars in the early universe. So that is some of the building blocks that goes back billions of years. The next sort of step, like any creative thing, you experiment. There were lots of experiments occurring throughout the universe, breaking apart, forming, collisions, Earth was getting hit, which produced a spin, the moon flew off, that helped create tides, that keeps us stable, all these things had to come together. It was not thoughtful experimentation, it was random, over a huge time frame and a huge amount of material. Eventually, it came up with something good, and that something good is planet Earth. It’s in the right spot and everything. Planet earth is a remarkable thing. It’s the only place in the universe we know that supports life.

Each episode of One Strange Rock is centred around a different topic. Could you tell us about the episode you present?
I am a physician and my particular episode is on survival, ecosystems, the evolution of life, and how it all came about. Once you have this rock, but you have to get a bit creative. And add something like life to it, and over time, 99% of everything ever, almost every lifeform on the planet, died off [before we arrived]. We are kind of the survivors of it and of course, you think of the dinosaur extinction, a comet hitting 66 million years ago off the Yucatan in Mexico. This huge amount of gas and debris cooled the planet, but then mammals down in holes at that point could crawl out and they had a domain they can dominate. The death of one helps the other. And then you have to perfect the invention and we have evolution, and random trial and error, the planet got built, people spread out, start 300 thousand years ago in Morocco, they spread, and get isolated, and certain genes expresssed that are advantagous for that group, that climate, and you get diversity of mankind with the genes that you know, the good inventions I guess, and now we’ve evolved and we have life, what a precious time we live in because we know finally have a lifeform. A human being that can comprehend how the earth works and how life came to be, and gain that understanding, the first time in history I guess, and now in the modern time, the Hubble space telescope, all of this technology born out of the creativity of the human mind, we can figure out how things work, but before they just, it happened, and there was no comprehension,

Seeing the Earth as an isolated pinpoint of life from your own perspective, has that changed the way you see life even more so widened your perceptions?
Absolutely. You know, when you are above the planet looking down, and this sounds strange, but you are looking at a planet, and – I spoke to other astronauts too – it surprised us. We know we’re looking at a planet every day but it sure doesn’t look like it. We look out and the world is flat, so we know rationally we know we are spinning, we know everything about it. But when you are out there, during a spacewalk, looking down when I had some quiet moments and I wasn’t in a rush to the space station – we were on the dark side of the earth, we had no light, and so I just had to stand there and observe things. I could look at the terminator (the line between the dark and light side of the earth) and if I stared, I could look at a landmark, say the English Channel, and see that line moving. Even there you have to use your rational mind and say that that line isn’t moving, the Earth is moving, it’s turning, it’s a planet. So it’s one of these moments that just come like ‘wow, it is a planet’. It’s a validation of our knowledge. I’m out here in space and I am seeing the earth turning. So yes, my perspective has changed tremendously from that experience. And I think that it relates to One Strange Rock because having astronauts narrate, I think the reason is because we have left it and come back and the analogy, you go on a wonderful vacation, go down to the Meditteranean, have a wonderful time, it’s different, adventure, but you come back home and you say “Wow, it’s great to be home”. Imagine that on a bigger scale.

Like a newfound appreciation for your home once you had returned? Being back on terra firma?
Yes! A newfound appreciation. Home sweet home. But now it is planet earth that is home sweet home. In this film, the One Strange Rock, I think that is the power of it, I suggest watching it lying back on a lounge chair, relaxing, not trying to be so logical, there is plenty of sceince and everything else, but just sit back, and look at the magnfiicnece of the Earth and the cultlrues and formations ofn the land and views from space and take in the wonder of it, creation of earth, how lucky we are, maybe take a deep breath and think wow, I am breathing. We have oxygen, what a carefree existence we have on our planet. And I think that is what this documentary can do, every episode can get you in awe of our planet and maybe appreciate it a bit better and therefore we will take care of it a lot more – like you take care of your home. We’re not renting this, it’s our home. The Earth is alive.

In One Strange Rock, we see footage of magnificent dust storms, and the Northern Lights dancing above our planet. What natural phenomena did you witness from above Earth?
You’ve got dust storms traveling across the ocean, you’ve got typhoons, you see this swirl of power and destructive force of a typhoon, volcanos exploding, literally went over the top of a volcano in Papua New Guinea and saw it explode, thousands of miles of dust in one direction, high-level winds carrying the steam off in a different direction, and the next orbit we come around pretty much over the same spot and the island is pretty much obliterated, it’s gone. You know – that is the dynamic earth down there, and we need, back to the film, it sort of show that, how the world works, it’s an alive earth and what an incredible chain of connections. An incredible invention, creating all the things we need to survive, life-sustaining. But the Earth is also fragile. You see the thin band of the atmosphere, but on the other hand, it is a genius, it’ss a genius in its buffering capacity, and if we’re just a little tender with it it will do just fine.

Is that the take-home message of the series? 
I think the message is that we are living on a wondrous planet, and you should fall in love with it. Your jaw should be hanging out in a world, a vulnerable speck of a planet. And we are in this harsh cosmic arena and we are just lucky. We have shields around us, magnetic fields, we’ve got ozone cutting out the UV light, we’re protected. We’re coddled, almost like a precious baby, and we should have a real appreciation of that and count our blessings – ponder the wonders of the planet, like we do when we’re in space. [On One Strange Rock] I tried to express how wondrous that is, looking down at a creation, and when I look in the other direction and see the whole universe, its’ hard to put that into words, even the visuals are hard to express, the dynamic nature of the earth, the lightning storm going for thousands of miles, you can’t really capture that, but this series, by putting together all the fabulous shots from around the world, I think it gives you close to that feeling I had up in space of just how incredible the planet is.

One Strange Rock continues Tuesdays at 8 pm on National Geographic.