Eileen Collins: 'From space, the Earth's atmosphere looks like an eggshell'

From a press briefing given by the commander of the 'Discovery' shuttle, after landing at Edwards Air Force Base, Mojave Desert, California
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The Independent Online

When flying, I try to stay focused on the mission, but I did think about the Columbia mission. I wouldn't say that it was a distraction, I would say it was more of ... we're going to press on and get through this. I thought about them every day. I thought about what their experiences were - that we were having the same experience they had of just living in space.

The human side of being in space is something I wish I could share with all of you. I'm going to miss looking back at the Earth from space. At night we saw the southern lights, and we flew through the aurora. Beautiful moving lights and colours, sunlights and sunsets.

The atmosphere almost looks like an eggshell, it's so thin. We know that we don't have much air, we need to protect what we have. Sometimes you can see erosion and deforestation. It's very widespread in some parts of the world. One of the things I saw was the massive burning taking place in the central part of Africa.

We flew over Madagascar, where we saw deforestation. The rivers and streams that normally would be a blueish-grey colour are now brown from the erosion of soil flowing out into the ocean. We would like to see, from the astronauts' point of view, people take good care of the Earth and replace the resources that have been used.

Some people say we should stop flying the shuttle because we've had an accident - frankly, two accidents. I ask you to please support it. This mission is very important: exploring space and making life on Earth better for all of us.

The Columbia crew believed in what they did, they believed in the space programme, and I know that if they were listening to me now, they would want us to continue this mission. We believe in this mission and we are going to continue it.