Kent Rominger has spent more than 1,600 hr. in space, all in low Earth orbit. The two-time shuttle commander has a host of memories on which to reflect, including how unbelievably fast the coast of Florida receded as he soared aloft on his first launch. But it was his first look in the other direction that really sticks in his mind.

“The most incredible thing I’ve ever seen is the color looking out into space—and that color is black—a black so dark, so stark, so vast, I’d never seen anything like it before,” he recalls. “And then it dawned on me, well, it is not the color, it is not the black that is so captivating. What I was really appreciating was the vastness of space. Without the atmosphere, I could tell I was looking trillions and trillions of miles into the depths of space, and it really struck me.”

That vastness, that sense of possibility that has drawn explorers like Rominger since the first protohumans wandered out of Africa an instant ago in cosmic time—or millions of Earth orbits around the Sun—is the backdrop to the push to go beyond this planet that began with Yuri Gagarin’s launch in 1961. It continued last month when an American, a Russian and a German lifted off from that same pad in Kazakhstan for the International Space Station (photo).\

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