Not many people get to go into space, but it’s been described by those who have as an extremely moving experience. Particularly is the aspect of being able to look back on the Earth from space, contrasting the one planet humans occupy against the enormity of the universe. Interestingly, it has been found that doing so has actually affected space travelers in the past, a change in behavior that is referred to as the Overview Effect.
The Overview Effect is a psychological transformation that affects astronauts when they enter space, and are able to look upon Earth in its entirety without seeing any of its borders or political differences. One well-known quote by Edgar Mitchell, a NASA astronaut who walked on the Moon during Apollo 14, essentially describes what the Overview Effect is like for those who experience it:
“In outer space you develop an instant global consciousness, a people orientation, an intense dissatisfaction with the state of the world, and a compulsion to do something about it. From out there on the moon, international politics look so petty. You want to grab a politician by the scruff of the neck and drag him a quarter of a million miles out and say, ‘Look at that you son of a b****.'”
This sort of experience is not unique to simply American astronauts though, as the Soviet cosmonaut Oleg Makarov reported having a similar effect while he was in space:
“Something about the unexpectedness of this sight, its incompatibility with anything we have ever experienced on Earth elicits a deep emotional response… Suddenly, you get a feeling you’ve never had before… That you’re an inhabitant… Of the Earth.”
Even Sultan bin Salman Al Saud, the first Muslim and Arab to go to space (as well as a member of the Saudi royal family and fighter pilot in the Saudi Royal Air Force) who flew aboard the space shuttle Discovery in 1985 reported the Overview Effect’s impact on the crew:
“The first day or so we all pointed to our countries. The third or fourth day we were pointing to our continents. By the fifth day we were aware of only one Earth.”
Generally, the Overview Effect manages to profoundly change the way astronauts perceive the Earth once they see how small and insignificant it appears compared to the rest of the universe, and by extension how small and insignificant the struggles and conflicts that take on Earth are.One of the best descriptions of it are by the astronomer Carl Sagan in his book Pale Blue Dot. In it, Sagan describes how every human that an individual has ever met, every religion that has ever been founded, every civilization that has risen and fallen, every politician who has come to power, etc has only been on Earth, which is a “small stage on a vast cosmic arena.”
Intellectually, it is possible to understand what the astronauts are describing but at the same time it can be difficult to communicate the experience to anyone else due to a lack of a common framework for understanding. However, many experts believe that the Overview Effect and spreading the message of this phenomenon can have huge benefits to humanitarian efforts, international relations and environmental movements.
Today, there is even an organization devoted to the ideology of the Overview Effect, called the Overview Institute. The Overview Institute points out that the Earth is at a critical moment in its history, especially due to environmental issues such as possible shortages of food, water, or resources, and the conflicts that could arise as a result. In order to settle such differences and find a solution that would be beneficial to humanity as a whole, the Overview Institute argues that the revolutionary experience that only roughly five-hundred astronauts have gone through must be communicated more adequately to a larger audience in order to bring humanity closer together. Interestingly, one of the major advancements that the institute claims will help spread the message of the overview effect is the commercialization of space travel. By opening up access to outer space to the masses (or at least those who can afford it), more people can understand what astronauts are trying to convey when they discuss the Overview Effect and hopefully change matters on Earth.
However, while many astronauts claim that the Overview Effect makes them feel closer to the Earth, others say that the experience made them feel more connected to the universe as a whole. For example, Dr. Mae Jemison, the first African-American woman to go into outer space, stated that she had purchased the book by Frank White entitled The Overview Effect during spaceflight training. Thus, Dr. Jemison was familiar with the Overview Effect prior to her journey into space, but states that what she experienced there was somewhat different than what she was expecting:
“…My response when I went into space is that I was connected to everything. I felt much more connected to everything else in the universe, and sometimes on Earth I felt much more separated from the rest of the universe. I felt like I had as much right to be in space or in this universe as any speck of stardust.”
Dr. Jemison was not the only astronaut to report feeling that way, as fellow astronaut Edgar Mitchell, the sixth man to walk on the Moon, described a feeling that was very similar:
“There was a startling recognition that the nature of the universe was not as I had been taught… I not only saw the connectedness, I felt it… I was overwhelmed with the sensation of physically and mentally extending out into the cosmos. I realized that this was a biological response of my brain attempting to reorganize and give meaning about to information about the wonderful and awesome processes that I was privileged to view.”
How is it that some astronauts reported a feeling of unity regarding the Earth, while others report a feeling of connection with the entire universe? Some experts suggest that it could simply be the human brain attempting to deal with the feeling of being in something as vast as space, or becoming disconnected from the Earth where humans have essentially spent their entire existence. Dr. Jemison also theorizes that the Overview Effect could simply be one of many possible “space syndromes” that people will encounter as more and more individuals gain access to space. She also compares it to a Rorschach Test, and that by going into space and seeing the entirety of Earth, people are able to reflect upon their own personal beliefs from being on Earth.
Of all the benefits from humanity going into space, perhaps the Overview Effect is one of the best since it affects people on a deep, psychological level that drives them to better not just themselves, but also the Earth in its entirety.