I’m looking for a short story which I read in high school, sometime between 1999 and 2005 (most likely around 2003). It’s a contemplative sci-fi story. As I remember, the plot was:
In the distant future, humans have spread out across the galaxy and settled on numerous planets. So many generations have passed that they no longer remember the location of Earth, which their ancestors had to leave because it had become uninhabitable- I think due to nuclear radiation from a massive war, or rampant pollution, or something similar.
The protagonists are a team of scientists on a spaceship; they are on a research mission. They arrive at a previously unexplored planet orbiting a dying star. The star will soon expand to engulf the planet, but the scientists want to take measurements before the planet burns up. When they touch down on the surface, they are surprised to find that the gravity and atmosphere are ideal for human biology. This is unusual; all the planets which humans currently inhabit have less-than-perfect conditions which people compensate for using breathing apparatus or gravity-assist devices. This planet is pristine, with plants growing on it and fresh, drinkable water and, but is uninhabited by intelligent life. (I can’t remember whether any animals were mentioned.)
The scientists stay for a long time to conduct their research – maybe several months, possibly longer. Most of them live on the spaceship during this time, but one researcher (can’t remember if it was a he or she) opts to stay on the surface because they feel instinctively drawn to the environment. This scientist builds a small hut and observes the changing of the seasons. They come to realize this must be the lost planet upon which humanity first evolved. They feel a sense of peace that they have finally come home, and a distinct sadness knowing that the planet will soon die. As the sun starts to expand, the seasons begin to speed up. Finally the researchers leave in the spaceship, and the main character watches from space as the sun engulfs the planet. He or she is the only person who understands and mourns the loss of Earth.
I have remembered this story for years because of the main character’s touching sense of grief for what humanity loses, without even realizing it, when our forgotten ancestral planet quietly falls into the sun.
This story was in an anthology (written in English) which I checked out from the library at John Burroughs School in St. Louis, MO. I think the anthology might have been called something along the lines of “Best Short Stories of 20XX” or “Best Science Fiction Short Stories of the 19XXs”. Not sure whether it was a general anthology or a sci-fi anthology; I suspect it may have been the latter. I recently visited the John Burroughs Library to see if I could find the anthology, but my (quick) search was unsuccessful. The library (http://library.jburroughs.org/library) does appear to have an online catalog. However, they renovated the building several years ago and I worry they may have gotten rid of the anthology.
I would be very grateful if anyone can help me find the title and author of this story. I’ve searched for it several times over the years and would love to be able to read it again.