For many extreme travellers, the end-all-be-all destination is a remote, dangerous place like Antarctica or Mount Everest. But there’s a whole community of elite globetrotters who aren’t aiming for the moon—instead they just got back from it.
Astronauts are tourists too, turns out, and they like sightseeing just as much as anyone else. So where does an astronaut vacation when they return Earth-side? The Bahamas? The very bottom of the ocean?
To find out, we called astronaut Randy Bresnik, working from his family’s home in Houston, Texas. A test pilot, “cavenaut,” and former Marine Corps colonel, Bresnik is also an avid traveller. His “One World Many Views” project documents places he’s visited in person on Earth side-by-side with pictures of the same place seen from above, taken during his two trips to the International Space Station.
Only 566 people have ever left the planet—the most recent being the two-man crew of the SpaceX Crew Dragon spacecraft, who returned to Earth August 2. “We’re fortunate to do it,” says Bresnik of his work as an astronaut. “We need to get to the point where it’s 560 people a day that are going to space.”
One day, hopping on a spacecraft might be as routine as grabbing a plane. Until then, here are Bresnik’s tips for exploring planet Earth.
When your standard is being up in space, it makes your perspective a little bit different from other travellers. So where does an astronaut go on vacation?
One of my favourite destinations has always been Australia. [The trip I took to] Cairns is the one that’s most memorable—up there in Queensland on the Great Barrier Reef where you’ve got the jungle right next door. In one day you can be whitewater rafting on the Tully River or riding dirt bikes throughout the jungle, and next thing you could be on a dive boat looking at giant potato cod bigger than you are.
And Slovenia. My grandparents came over [from there], turn of the century. What an amazingly beautiful country. From the capital, on top of the castle, you can see practically almost the whole place. Pristine. Beautiful people. Very environmentally conscious. Just good stewards of their country and a gem within Europe.
We love Scotland. That’s where my wife and I had our wedding. There are so many castles there that have turned into bed and breakfasts. We wanted to take our kids and stay at a different castle every night. We could be full-time travellers and still not see everything we want to see.
Were there particular places that you became interested in visiting because you noticed them while photographing from space?
My wife and I haven’t done any travel in South America. And to go over Patagonia … Wow. That just looks like another planet down there. It’s absolutely gorgeous.
Finding Mount Everest from space at 28,163 kilometres an hour, 402 kilometres above it, that was a real treat. Finding places from space can be a little challenging. You’re moving at 10 kilometres a second. You can imagine, being in a car and seeing something on the side of the road and Boom!—it’s gone in a second.
You bring camera equipment to space. Do you also bring your camera when you’re travelling on Earth?
I bring it everywhere I go. I appreciate [digital cameras] very much. I’m at the age where I don’t have all that many videos and pictures of me growing up. But my children will be able to go back and see what their childhood was like, times with their parents when they weren’t all old and gray.
Do you have any tips for other travel photographers?
I’m not a take-a-selfie kind of person. I prefer the scene. The pictures I take are of my family, the four of us. But other than that, I walk around and I look at where the light’s hitting, what’s interesting. Moving a few steps left or right, forward or back, can change the whole image. If you see something that’s that worth capturing and you want to share it with people—take a minute to see if there’s something maybe even better than the spot where you’re at.
Is there a particular colour or view from space that was completely unexpected and captivating for you?
That’s easy. The green of the auroras as we flew over top of them. To be up there, and just have these amazing, amazing nights where the earth’s upper atmosphere is getting excited by this cosmic energy. It’s like flying over wave action in the middle of the ocean as the sun glints off of the water. It’s just indescribable.
It’s an emotional thing to see our planet from orbit. Because [aboard the space station] you go around the planet every ninety minutes. Everything that’s ever happened in the history of humankind… you’ve just gone around that in ninety minutes. It makes you feel very humble. But you’re also tied to that planet because it’s everybody you’ve ever known. Every experience you’ve ever had has been down on that little planet, and you just flew around it in ninety minutes. That puts perspective on how small and fragile our planet is.
Say it’s 2050, and you have the option to travel to space for vacation, not for work. Would you go?
I hope that the work I’m doing now will make it so that going to space will be as familiar as airline travel right now. I’d love to be able to say to my grandkids, “Hey kids, would you rather go to Disney World or would you rather go to space?”
What’s better: airplane food or spacecraft food?
I’d say airplane food. They get in and load it just before you take off. Space craft food gets packed up and sent to you. It’s good… it’s better than my Marine Corps in-field food. But I’d have to say plane food is better.
Were you ever afraid to fly? Even as a child?
No. We’d go to the airport to pick up my grandparents and I’d see these planes and I was just like, “Oh, I want to go fly in these! This would be so neat.” I was always amazed by them. But we had a family of four kids and we couldn’t afford to go much of anywhere on planes until later when I was much older. So that’s when I was like: “This is what I want to do. I want to fly.” I became a test pilot. I’ve flown airplanes, helicopters, gliders, blimps, space craft… I don’t have a fear of pretty much anything, because I know if the pilots can’t fly I can go up there and fly it myself.
What have you learned from traveling to space that you apply to domestic travel?
Don’t stick your arms out the windows.
Let’s see… in space, you can’t just have a glass of water. Right? You store the water and then dispense it so it doesn’t become globules that float all over. And we have purification systems for the water and dispensing systems that we keep clean. You have to take care that you’re drinking good water.
It’s no different when you travel. You need to make sure that you understand whether or not you need to drink bottled water. People’s immunities and people’s tolerances are different based on the country they grow up in. We don’t all eat and consume the same food. Just be prepared for it.
So you have two kids and your family travels a lot. Has travelling to space made you more patient on long car rides?
Absolutely. Five months aboard the International Space Station makes you patient for many things. It makes you appreciative of fresh air and the smell of grass. The feeling of walking around barefoot on different textures. And also, human touch. We’ll give our crew members hugs when they arrive on space station and when they depart; other than that, you don’t have a lot of human touch.
And if you have kids… feeling those little arms wrapped around your neck for a hug or holding your hand while you walk. Or kissing your spouse or your significant other. These are little things you do every day you just take for granted. And when you don’t have it, it’s… you miss it. We are humans and humans share experiences. That’s a tough part of long duration missions.
I bet that’s something that a lot of people can really relate to today, too.
Yeah. I mean, think about all of the people that haven’t been able to travel when a family member’s died. I have a friend at NASA whose mother died and he cannot go to the funeral. That’s just unprecedented for us.
Do you have anything else you’d like to share from an astronaut’s perspective on travel?
[On one expedition,] I circled the earth for five months. With the inclination of our orbit, with the Earth turning underneath of us, we covered about 90 per cent of the Earth’s surface and population. And I didn’t see anywhere I didn’t want to go. It’s all just so gorgeous. When we get past this current virus crisis, I think people should take the opportunity to go out and see the world.