[FOUNTAIN]Blue planet, dismal outlook

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[FOUNTAIN]Blue planet, dismal outlook

Yuri Gagarin, the Russian astronaut who was the first man to orbit the earth, went into space on April 12, 1961. The single orbit of the earth in his Vostok 1 spacecraft lasted one hour and 48 minutes.

Mr. Gagarin, after his flight and until his untimely death in 1968, was a world celebrity and a Soviet hero. He had a romantic streak, and loved to read books and memorize poetry. Despite his spoken eloquence, however, he is remembered for a simple phrase in a speech he gave after returning from space.

"The color of the earth is blue," he said.

That is not surprising, because three-quarters of the earth's surface is covered with water, the source of all life on this planet. Subsequent space missions have built on Mr. Gagarin's simple observation and have produced detailed studies of earthly water and other environmental features of our beautiful blue planet.

Many of those astronauts and cosmonauts were also asked to describe the earth from space, but none of them came up with a better summary than Mr. Gagarin's simple words.

Mori Mamoru, the first Japanese astronaut, got a bit of attention when he reported, "The color of the water is definitely changing," after completing his mission to space on the American space shuttle Endeavor in September 1992.

The Japanese spaceman's words were a symbolic warning of worsening pollution on earth.

On his second trip to space in February 2000, he reported more directly. "The Aral Sea is shrinking and is even narrower than it was eight years ago."

The Aral Sea is an inland salt lake with more than a thousand islands. It is on the border between Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan and the meaning of the word "aral" is "island." Years ago, it was the world's fourth-largest lake, but now has dropped to sixth place because it is drying up.

The Amu Darya River, the longest in Central Asia, and other rivers have been diverted for irrigation water; some environmentalists warn that the Aral Sea could even disappear in about 20 years.

Central Asian leaders discussed a rescue plan for the sea at a conference last week, but said that without international support, the sea's recovery would be difficult or impossible.

The leaders could not agree on a plan, so how could the global community do better? There were calls for further discussions and the establishment of a United Nations commission.

Perhaps future astronauts will have something more positive to say about our blue planet's water.

The writer is an editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.

by Kim Seok-hwan

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