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THE OVERVIEW EFFECT
What happens when you see Earth from space – and why it’s so hard to explain
BY CRAIG COLLINS
It suddenly struck me that that tiny pea, pretty and blue, was the Earth. I put up my thumb and shut one eye, and my thumb blotted out the planet Earth. I didn’t feel like a giant. I felt very, very small. – Neil Armstrong
It was on the day many Earthlings know as Christmas Eve, 1968, when the first three humans to leave our planet’s orbit – Apollo 8 astronauts William Anders, Frank Borman, and Jim Lovell – swung around the dark side of the Moon and saw what nobody had ever seen before: an impossibly blue orb, swirling with clouds, in the blackness beyond the Moon’s desolate horizon. “Oh my God!” Anders exclaimed. “Look at that picture!” Moments later he captured the full-color image we know today as “Earthrise.”
Anders’ photograph offered humans a stark look at their place in the universe: They were invisible, clinging to a tiny ball of water and rock that tumbled in a fathomless void. Wilderness photographer Galen Rowell declared the image “the most influential environmental photograph ever taken.” The iconic illustration of the planet’s fragility helped to inspire the first Earth Day: April 22, 1970, when 20 million Americans – about 10 percent of the nation, at the time – rallied and marched and demanded their political leaders take action to protect the planet.
In the 20th continuous year of human habitation aboard the International Space Station, it’s worth wondering whether the sight of Earth from space is as influential as it used to be. “Earthrise” was the first of many such photographs. Most of us have seen it, or something similar – and if we think about it, it’s pretty cool; if we think about it a lot, we might even get close to the sense of awe many people felt when they got their first look in 1968.
Fifty years after “Earthrise,” in a retrospective he wrote for Space.com, Anders recalled: “We set out to explore the Moon, and instead discovered Earth.” Many space travelers, from Yuri Gagarin to Christina Koch, have expressed a similar sense of enduring astonishment. So why are the rest of us so quick to lose that feeling? “Earthrise” offers a clue.
WHAT IS THE OVERVIEW EFFECT?
In the early 1980s, a Harvard graduate and Rhodes Scholar named Frank White belonged to a group known as the Space Studies Institute, whose members advocated the creation of human orbital communities between the Earth and the Moon. On a cross-country flight, while looking out the airplane window, White imagined that if he lived in one of those settlements, he would always have an overview of the Earth, and see it as a whole system in which everything was connected. “I wouldn’t have to think about it. I wouldn’t have to meditate on it. I would just know it,” he recalled. “And then the term overview effect came to me, and since no one lived in outer space at that time, I interviewed astronauts as proxies for space settlers.”
White has now interviewed dozens of astronauts for his book, The Overview Effect: Space Exploration and Human Evolution, which demonstrates that a direct, distant view of Earth brings a cognitive shift in awareness: Astronauts experience the planet as an object moving through space; their fellow humans as crewmates on what futurist Buckminster Fuller called “Spaceship Earth.” In 2008, White and David Beaver, a nuclear and social scientist, established the nonprofit Overview Institute to communicate these insights and their implications for the rest of us.
Beaver, also the institute’s chief cognitive researcher, has some ideas about why this paradigm shift takes hold in astronauts, but is rare among terrestrials who see their planet in photographs, planetariums, or IMAX theaters. For one thing, people tend to interpret things – especially new, bewildering things – in ways that conform to what they’ve already seen.
Which brings us back to “Earthrise”: Through their spacecraft windows, the Apollo 8 astronauts saw the Earth drifting slowly leftward; Anders framed the photograph as it appeared to him, the Moon’s horizon a gray wall to his right.
But the “Earthrise” presented to us – on virtually every website, including NASA’s; on postage stamps; on the covers of bound collections of the most influential photographs in history – is rotated, to resemble our more recognizable sunrises and moonrises. We couldn’t call it “Earthrise” otherwise; there is no word or phrase among humanity’s 6,500 languages to describe a celestial body sliding sideways past a vertical horizon. Until 1968, nobody had ever seen such a thing. The collective mind of Homo sapiens, a species evolved in bodies born and reconstituted from the planet’s raw materials over 200,000 years, bears the imprint of our position on the Earth’s surface. “Down” is where the Earth pulls us; we know it even with our eyes closed. “Up” is the endless blue sky. The Earth is immeasurably vast, stretching far beyond a flat horizon.
Time is marked by days that begin when we first see the sun and end when it disappears.
These rhythms and forces are defined by the fact that we live on a planet in space. Most people understand this, but they understand it because someone told them, in the way they know about the Ice Age, or electricity. “People think of the Earth as this collection of nations spread out over a tiny sliver of biomass on top of a gigantic planet,” Beaver said. “The sense of the reality of a planet in the universe is missing from our visceral, internal understanding of life on Earth.”
But not if you’re an astronaut.
EARTH FROM SPACE
On the space station, there is no up or down. The Earth you see from its 360-degree viewing area, the cupola, is round and bright, mostly water, not as big as you thought, with no visible international boundaries. The once-endless sky is a flimsy amniotic layer that looks as if you could rub it off with your thumb. Station crewmembers work with terrestrial teammates during “days” that begin around 7:00 a.m. UTC (Coordinated Universal Time, the worldwide scientific standard for timekeeping), but the orbiting laboratory circles the Earth approximately every 90 minutes, so crewmembers experience 16 sunrises and sunsets every “day.”
In their research, Beaver and White have discovered several recurring elements of the overview effect. For example, many astronauts experience a profound recognition of, and concern for, the fragility of the planet. André Kuipers, the Dutch astronaut who was a flight engineer on the space station in 2004 and again in 2011-2012, got his first long look at the Earth from the window of the U.S. Destiny laboratory. “I remember very well the moment that I felt this overview effect,” he said. “It was when I flew over India, and I thought: ‘Wow, there’s a billion people living there. And they all think the Earth is endless. But in one-and-a-half hours, I’ll see them again in the distance, on my next orbit.’” To Kuipers, the Earth looked like a cell within a thin membrane, and for all its beauty, he was dismayed by the visible signs of humanity: hazy yellow clouds of industrial pollution; huge algae blooms in the ocean; the scars of rainforest clear-cuts; and at night, lights drowning out all the empty spaces. “The Earth seems a bit like a baby,” Kuipers said, “beautiful, but also vulnerable. It’s a very fragile planet with a limited amount of fertile ground.”
Seeing the Earth as a cell within a membrane, floating in space, also introduces a perspective that goes beyond regional or national identity. Michael López-Alegría, the NASA astronaut who was space station commander of the seven-month Expedition 14 in 2006-2007, and who participated in 10 spacewalks and holds the American record for total cumulative spacewalk duration (67 hours, 40 minutes), was busy during his time outside the station, but nevertheless took a few moments to observe the globe. “You look down and feel connected to the Earth and the people on it,” he said, “and knowing a lot of what’s going on down there, maybe things we read about in the news onboard, people fighting over this or that – it just makes you feel like a parent who interrupts a squabble between children: ‘Come on, guys. Really. That is not important.’”
Beaver and White have also noted the overview effect often awakens or reinforces humanitarian concerns – a desire for people to stop fighting and take care of each other. NASA astronaut Ron Garan, a flight engineer aboard the station for six months in 2011, has spoken extensively about seeing and contemplating Earth, and written three books about it. In his first, The Orbital Perspective, he describes experiencing the overview effect in 2008, when he was a mission specialist aboard the space shuttle Discovery, replacing a nitrogen tank on the station. Garan rode the station’s 57-foot robotic arm in an arc, from one end to the other, and as he looked down at what he later described as “this stunning, fragile oasis, this island that has been given to us,” he felt overwhelmed by a discrepancy: “In spite of the overwhelming beauty of this scene,” he wrote, “serious inequity exists on the apparent paradise we have been given. I couldn’t help thinking of the nearly one billion people who don’t have clean water to drink, the countless number who go to bed hungry every night, the social injustice, conflicts, and poverty that remain pervasive across the planet.”
Many astronauts claim difficulty in describing the experience of seeing the Earth – you have to be there, they say; there is no medium capable of capturing the stupefyingly awesome spectacle. NASA astronaut Nicole Stott, a flight engineer on the station for six months in 2009, found herself unprepared for the “overwhelmingly beautiful, glowing view of who and where we are.” When she tried to describe it in a phone call to her 7-year-old son, she said, “all I could think to tell him was: Imagine you’ve got the brightest light bulb you’ve ever seen, and you splash it with all these colors that you know Earth to be, and then you turn it on and you almost can’t look at it; it’s so bright, you’ve got to let your eyes adjust.”
Stott, López-Alegría, and others have also said the awe inspired by the overview effect isn’t immediate; it sinks in over time. Garan, also, differentiates between the overview effect itself – “that ‘aha’ moment when you realize you are part of something bigger than yourself” – and what he calls the orbital perspective: “an epiphany in slow motion,” he said. “The orbital perspective is what you do with that awareness, the call to action from the overview effect.”
THE ORBITAL PERSPECTIVE: SPACE- FLIGHT’S GIFT TO EARTH
Garan and other astronauts have responded passionately to their calls to action. Since he last returned to Earth nearly a decade ago, Garan has been trying to marshal the collective resources of multinational, government, and private organizations to solve thorny humanitarian problems such as hunger, disease, and poverty. His many efforts include Unity Node (unitynode.org), an informal data-sharing initiative aimed at cooperation and optimizing resources. Garan named the initiative for the space station module that links the orbital segments of the United States and Russia – the former Cold War enemies who set aside their differences to form the core of what’s arguably the most valuable international collaboration in history. “Space is a very unifying human endeavor,” said Garan. “We’ve gotten a little taste of what we can do together as a species if we set aside our differences and work together. And hopefully it will be the example that we follow in other things.”
Stott’s foundation, Space for Art, unites children around the world – in hospitals, schools, and refugee centers – to explore the awe and wonder of space exploration and to “raise awareness of our role as crewmembers, not just passengers, on Spaceship Earth.” Among the foundation’s most conspicuous creations are its colorful spacesuits, pieced together from patches created by kids around the world. The most recent suit, “Exploration,” was fashioned by kids in hospitals and refugee centers in 45 different countries.
“These kids understand they live on a planet,” Stott said. “There are kids we’ve worked with in Uganda who never had an idea that a place called Ohio even existed, and they know now that there are kids in those places who are going through something similar to them, and that they’ve both had the opportunity, through painting something to do with space exploration, to think about their futures outside of that place.”
Kuipers began serving as an ambassador for the World Wildlife Fund after his return to Earth, and eventually channeled his concerns into a nonprofit educational foundation, SpaceBuzz, which introduces the overview effect to a growing number of schoolchildren around the world. The SpaceBuzz experience, first launched in his native Netherlands, is an intensive astronaut role-play that begins with students training and learning about the planet and spaceflight, then checking in with Mission Control over the internet – and finally climbing aboard the SpaceBuzz rocket vehicle on wheels that seats nine at a time. Student astronauts don virtual reality goggles and are led by Kuiper’s avatar into space – and see some of the things, such as the algae blooms and clear-cuts, that have him worried for the planet’s future. “We even go to the Moon,” Kuipers said, “and they see the ‘Earthrise,’ which was iconic, and was the start of it all: Apollo 8, in 1968, when we saw for the first time with human eyes that we live on this spaceship Earth, this very fragile blue planet with limited resources.”
There’s no question that the overview effect shifts an astronaut’s worldview, but it’s not quite right to think of it as a revelatory, quasi-religious experience that transforms a person. Stuart Roosa, the Apollo 14 command module pilot, once acknowledged that seeing Earth from space was a moving experience, but also claimed that, “space changes nobody ... You bring back from space what you bring into space.” Garan was a humanitarian before he went to space, the leader of a nonprofit aimed at bringing renewable energy, communications technology, and clean drinking water to other parts of the world. Stott has always been an artist – but is the first space station crewmember to paint what she saw out the window while still in space.
Maybe it’s more accurate to apply a caveat uttered by the late Alan Bean, the Apollo 12 and Skylab astronaut. “Everyone who went to the Moon,” Bean said, “came back more like they already were.”
Among the billions of human beings who have ever lived, only about 565 – and counting – have seen the Earth in a way that’s given them the chance to become more like they already were. “I define the overview effect as something that happens when you’re in space,” said White. “I wrote The Overview Effect to change how we see ourselves as a planet, as people, where we are in the universe ... but it really is the astronauts’ message.” To approximate the direct experience of the overview effect, the Overview Institute has been working with Hollywood special effects legend Douglas Trumbull to create an immersive cinematic experience on a 50-acre complex in the Berkshires of Massachusetts.
Trumbull, the creator of visual effects for films such as 2001: A Space Odyssey, has been involved in the institute since its inception; years ago, it was he who recommended White’s book to Beaver. Trumbull has said he views the Berkshires project as a chance to create a “synthetic overview effect,” a media experience so profound that every viewer will feel as if “you were there, and you got it, and something happened to you in your heart and your soul and your spirit. That would be, to me, the most satisfying special effect I could do in my life.”
Meanwhile astronauts, with efforts such as Unity Node, Space for Art, and SpaceBuzz, share their insights and call their fellow Earthlings to action – a fortuitous consequence of the human spaceflight era. As more astronauts offer their own deeply personal interpretations of the overview effect, we may begin to see them less as the mythic folk heroes we imagined in the days of Apollo, and more as they see us: our crewmates on Spaceship Earth.
One of the most fabled space travelers, the famously stoic Neil Armstrong, said he viewed the Apollo program as “a demonstration that humanity is not forever chained to this planet, and our visions go rather further than that, and our opportunities are unlimited.” But even Armstrong couldn’t help, once he found himself on the Moon, playing peek-a-boo with the tiny blue pea of Earth. As future generations lead us farther out into the universe and change the way we see ourselves, they’re as likely as today’s astronauts to realize this is only part of their job: Their most important task, maybe, is to show the rest of us the way home.