Last week, even the slight ties maintained between the United States and Russia were once again stretched to their breaking point as American forces targeted the Syrian base believed to be responsible for a chemical weapons attack carried out earlier in the week.  Russian and American government officials have taken turns lobbing sharply worded statements at one another since, with the Russians accusing America of violating international law by taking action and Americans accusing Russia of being complicit in the chemical attack that instigated the missile strike.

In both countries, the underlying threat of war seems real, despite numerous political and economic hurdles making such an outcome unlikely – and in many ways, the emotional atmosphere surrounding relations between Russia and the U.S. feels more than just reminiscent of the Cold War… unless of course, you’re one of the few Russians or Americans who benefit from an overhead view of the whole ordeal.

On Monday, two Russian Cosmonauts and one American astronaut left the International Space Station they’ve shared as their home for the past one hundred and seventy-three days and made the trip back to the troubled Earth below via Russian Soyuz capsule.  Shane Kimbrough of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration and cosmonauts Sergey Ryzhikov and Andrey Borisenko from Russian space agency Roscosmos wrapped up their nearly six-month stint on the space station just before 4 am and touched down southeast of Dzhezkazgan, Kazakhstan, at 7:20 a.m. EDT.

Shane Kimbrough wasn’t immune to the events that took place on the surface of the planet below him over the past week – but was quick to point out that the efforts taking place on the Space Station are larger than pursuing the interests of individual nations.

“It’s really neat to be part of something this big, something bigger than ourselves … even bigger than a nation,” Kimbrough said during a change-of-command ceremony on Sunday. “We get the ability up here to interact with things that actually benefit all of humanity. It’s really humbling.”

With the departure of the three that returned home on Monday, the ISS is currently manned by only three crew members: NASA’s Peggy Whitson, who on April 24 will break record for the most time spent in space by a U.S. astronaut at 534 days, Roscosmos cosmonaut Oleg Novitskiy, and France’s Thomas Pesque.  Whitson, who made news earlier this month by breaking the record for most spacewalks by a woman, had her tour aboard the space station extended by three months by American and Russian officials last week.  She will now return home in September after living more than 660 days in orbit.

Russian and American cooperation in the face of the challenges posed by manned space travel is nothing new, but in today’s world full of increasing tensions and international posturing, it’s nice to be reminded from time to time that even nations as politically averse to one another’s positions as the U.S. and Russia can find reason to work together to benefit all of mankind.

Many astronauts return to earth speaking of a cognitive shift they experience while floating hundreds of miles above our heads and looking down at just how small and fragile the “tiny blue dot” we share truly is amid the sea of black that makes up the majority of existence.  This “overview effect,” as it’s been dubbed by psychologists, was related eloquently by NASA astronaut Ron Garan in his book, “The Orbital Perspective.”

As I approached the top of this arc, it was as if time stood still, and I was flooded with both emotion and awareness. But as I looked down at the Earth — this stunning, fragile oasis, this island that has been given to us, and that has protected all life from the harshness of space — a sadness came over me, and I was hit in the gut with an undeniable, sobering contradiction.

In spite of the overwhelming beauty of this scene, serious inequity exists on the apparent paradise we have been given. I couldn’t help thinking of the nearly one billion people who don’t have clean water to drink, the countless number who go to bed hungry every night, the social injustice, conflicts, and poverty that remain pervasive across the planet.

Seeing Earth from this vantage point gave me a unique perspective — something I’ve come to call the orbital perspective. Part of this is the realization that we are all traveling together on the planet and that if we all looked at the world from that perspective we would see that nothing is impossible.”

Garan’s words serve as a reminder that our opponents don’t have to be our enemies, and that by expanding the scope of how we see our conflicts, we can begin to appreciate that we humans are united by how rare we seem to be when juxtaposed against the mind-warping emptiness that surrounds us.

Can this perspective solve problems like those we’ve seen in Syria?  Unfortunately not, but that doesn’t bar us from benefiting from these occasional reminders as we strive to advance our civilization toward a day that doesn’t have to worry about chemical weapons being used on civilians; toward a day when our world can be unified by common goals like those maintained high in the sky above us by an international group of the Earth’s best and brightest.

If they can do it, maybe one day, we can too.

Image courtesy of NASA