The coolest thing I’ve been involved in (in a very small way) this year

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Ever since I was very small, I’ve always just been crazy, crazy, crazy about space. I still miss a particular book about space that I had as a kid and which I lost somewhere between then and now. My favourite dressing up stuff when I was little was an astronaut suit; my favourite toy, a tent done up like an Apollo capsule. And I never really grew out of it.

Even today, space films have the capacity to affect me like nothing else. Emma always chuckles at me because while there may be few things in life you can really count on, one of them is the fact that I will *invariably* get slightly teary at the ending of ‘Contact’ (which I must have watched more times than any other movie). Or at the ending of ‘Gravity’. Or for that matter at the Imax film about how shuttle astronauts repaired Hubble. Anything with stars in it, really.

Then, four years ago, there was a point when I was the writer for the UN’s High Level Panel on Global Sustainability. In many ways it was a deeply frustrating experience, and there was one particularly dispiriting morning, when I was in a windowless room in the UN’s North Lawn Building in NYC, listening to one member of the Panel in particular block one thing after another.

And the thing was that I’d just been reading this book called The Overview Effect, which was all about how the view of earth from space changed astronauts’ perspectives for ever, and made them think in terms of a larger, truly global ‘us’.

And all I could think of, as I listened to all these politicians, was: if only you were all in space, this would be such a different conversation. And as I sat there, feeling mutinous, I tuned out of the conversation for a few minutes and scribbled off this blog post. Serendipitously, I got a lovely email just a few hours later from Frank White, the author of the Overview Effect, to say hello – and amid all the disillusionment, his email kept me going through the rest of the meeting.

But that wasn’t the end of the serendipities. Earlier this year, in the spring I think, I was over in NYC for a work trip. It was my first night in town, I was jetlagged to hell, and I was grabbing a quick bite to eat in my hotel’s bar before crashing out. Sitting next to me at the bar was another guy eating on his own, and I just happened to glance in his direction as he opened his wallet – and I saw that he had several of the same business cards in there, all with the NASA logo on them.

So obviously I surmised that they were his cards, and my eyes widened, and I heard myself say, “excuse me, do you work at NASA?!” And it turns out that he was called Matt Pearce, that he did indeed work at NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies – and off we went.

I talked about how much I adored Contact; it turned out he’d actually done some work on it. I told him about that Panel meeting four years ago; he got it 100%. And then we got to talking about this year’s big summit moments, and the Sustainable Development Goals and COP21 and all the rest of it, and somewhere along the way we hit upon an idea.

We may not be able to bring summits to space, we figured, but we can at least bring space, and the overview perspective it gives, to summits. What would it be like, we wondered, if a UN summit were to open with a live uplink to the International Space Station – talking to the astronauts as they look down at us, with them explaining to us how irrelevant borders look, and how fragile the earth seems, from all the way up there?

So eventually we wrapped it up for the evening, but not before we’d swapped business cards and I’d promised to put him in touch with friends in the UN Secretary-General’s office, whom he’d then put in touch with people at NASA HQ. And we both did, and later I gathered that a meeting had duly gone ahead, and that was about as much as I heard about it – until now, this week, here in Paris at COP21.

I have to say at this point that in Addis Ababa, where we live, Emma and I often make a point of watching the International Space Station as it goes overhead. (You can sign up for updates about when it’s due to fly over where you live here.) It never fails to send a shiver down my spine when I see it: it’s the third brightest object in the sky, and though it takes a full 6 minutes to cross from one horizon to the other, you really have the sense of it hurtling along; of the fact that this is an object travelling at 17,500 miles an hour.

And I especially love the fact that our two kids Isabel (5) and Kit (2) also totally get how awesome this is. Last time Isabel watched it with me, she dressed up in her snow suit because it’s the closest thing she has to a space suit. And on its very next orbit, one of the crew tweeted a picture of Ethiopia’s Simien Mountains from space. We tweeted him back to say hello. That was really great.

But it pales in comparison with having been one small link in a long and utterly serendipitous chain that resulted in this video being played at the COP21 climate summit. It’s a beautiful film, and I take my hat off to the people involved in making it. I have this big, silly smile on my face as I type this to think that, even if in a very circuitous and tangential way, I’ve been involved in a space mission. All the more so given that that mission is about the issue that I’ve spent the last 20 years or so working on.