The Street View From Space

The newest images on Google Maps were taken by an astronaut as he floated from module to module.

A crowded space full of electronics and a French flag
Where we're going, we don't need streets.  (Google)

When people aren’t scanning Google Street View for directions to their next mundane destination, they might be using it to tour the bustling markets of Bangkok, float over colorful corals in the Bahamas, or count Adélie penguins in Antarctica. For a few minutes, they can immerse themselves in strange and beautiful parts of the planet they’ll likely never see for themselves. Now, they can also leave the planet altogether.

The newest images on Google Street View come from inside the International Space Station, the research laboratory orbiting 250 miles above Earth at more than 17,500 miles per hour. They were taken earlier this year by European Space Agency astronaut Thomas Pesquet, of France, as he floated through the station from module to module, using a DSLR camera that was already on board. Sometimes he shot freehand—after all, what use is a tripod in microgravity? When he needed to stabilize the camera, Pesquet rested it against bungee cords that were drawn tightly between two walls of a module. He sent the photos down to Earth, where the Google Street View team stitched them together to create panoramic views of the station and added annotations that explain to users what they’re seeing. You can check them out here.

The images reveal a tangled world of technical equipment and everyday objects pressed against walls with cables and tape. They show the areas astronauts and cosmonauts use to conduct research, eat, exercise, and yes, even go to the bathroom. NASA usually describes the size of the living and working quarters of the ISS as akin to a five-bedroom house, but that description doesn’t adequately capture the station’s layout—15 connected modules, all sticking out in different directions. Pesquet said in a video about the project that the station feels much roomier than it looks in part because there’s no floor. Astronauts can float right up to every wall and use it as a surface. Still, it’s pretty cozy in there. Any future missions beyond Earth’s orbit will require people who don’t mind that.

The Google Street View team spent two days wandering through NASA’s replica of the ISS in Houston to create instructions for Pesquet. On Earth, Street View cameras are anchored to cars, trolleys, snowmobiles or backpacks, a level of stability they couldn’t replicate in space. “All of our Street View procedures are predicated on the existence of gravity,” one team member jokes in the video.

The ISS is unlike any of the natural scenes users might explore using Google Street View. You can’t pine for the same things. When you’re dragging your mouse around the white-sand beaches of Indonesia, you might daydream about the sound of the lapping waves or the caw of birds overhead. But on the space station, there’s no weather to long for because there’s no weather, period. For months, astronauts don’t feel a breeze, the warmth of the sun, or the sounds of living things other than their roommates.

But you’re floating in space, and that’s pretty fun, too.