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The inaugural flight of the space shuttle -- that orbital moving van that will soon be trucking all manner of satellites, floating factories, and prefab space colonies beyond the stratosphere -- has opened an era that some are calling the "peopled space age." By the turn of the century, they say, getting on one of those freighters headed for space will be no more novel than flying from New York to the West Coast.

Some go so far as to proclaim that the sooner we passengers on Spaceship Earth become a planet of astronauts and get off this globe, the better our chance of saving our precious little garden in the universe. Preposterous? Far-fetched?Talk to Rusty Schweickart, a man who knows whereof he orbits.

Russell L. Schweickart is the freckle-faced New Jersey farm kid turned Apollo 9 astronaut turned born-again environmentalist, who made history in March 1979, when he stepped off the "front porch" of Gumdrop, the orbiting Apollo command module, and floated free, without an umbilical cord, in that sparkling vacuum between Earth and the universe. Sustained only by his oxygen-supplying backpack , he flew 200 miles above the earth's surface at 17,000 miles an hour, to become literally the world's "first human spaceship."

The experience of orbiting his home planet 151 times, taking in 15 sunrises and 15 sunsets a day, having breakfast over North Africa and dinner over Perth, Australia, dramatically changed the way he looked at his life and at the world.

"I recognized that I was one of the first pieces of humanity who was moving out and away from this mother Earth that had borne us and nurtured us," Schweickart said recently. "I asked myself: How did I get here? What does this mean? Who am I?

"I thought of myself at that particular moment on that particular frontier as a sensing element for all humanity. I was a self-aware being looking back at Earth, a self-aware, fragile organism. That recognition transformed my relationship to the planet which held everything which was familiar and precious to me."


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