An Astronaut’s View of Earth Could Change Us All

The “overview effect” profoundly changes the way space travelers view our planet. How can everyone experience it?

ISS Night view.jpg
A night-time view from the International Space Station. NASA

It’s all a bit lovey-dovey, but astronauts who have gone to orbit over the last half-century have made it clear that seeing our planet from a vantage point in space flips some kind of switch in your brain. And while many of us may be awed by spectacular photos taken from the space station cupola and stretching all the way back to Earthrise, the powerful feeling of seeing it live just cannot be duplicated, they tell us.

After spending four and a half months floating around in microgravity as a crewmember of Expedition 18 in 2008-2009, Magnus came back to Earth to this “horrible, monstrously oppressive force” we call gravity. “My first thought was ‘oh my God, how do we get anything done on this planet??‘,” she said. It’s a feeling we can imagine but cannot experience the way an astronaut does. As Magnus put it, you know a stove is hot, but you can’t fully comprehend the concept until you’ve put your hand on the burner.

Frank White, a panel member who coined the term “overview effect” and wrote a book about it in 1987, believes that it’s crucial we find a way to translate it for the general populace. The effect, he says, “is a message to us human beings about who we are, where we are, and where we’re going.” Astronauts frequently have four particular epiphanies of awareness, according to panelist David Beaver, one of the founders of the The Overview Institute: the thinness of the atmosphere (Magnus said the paper-thin layer of atmosphere nearly skimming the planet’s surface was her very first thought upon opening the shuttle payload bay doors on her first trip to space), the interactivity of the biosphere, the smallness of Earth in space, and, perhaps surprisingly, the roundness of the Earth — another concept we understand in the post-Columbus era, but don’t really experience in our everyday lives.

The Institute’s goal is simple: To get people on this planet to realize we’re all living on “spaceship Earth” together, and that we need to care for the planet before we all become homeless together. Perhaps if our world leaders all took an orbit on the space station, said Lopez-Alegria, the idea of world citizenship over national citizenship would take hold, and the only thing left to wonder would be why it took us so long to realize it in the first place. Lopez-Alegria is now the president of the Commercial Spaceflight Federation, and hopes this new industry will “democratize access to space” so that regular folk — including the poets — can have the experience, and not just millionaire space tourists. (On the other hand, if you want to send a message that space tourism will continue to be a rich- people thing, NBC Universal’s press release today proclaiming, “Sir Richard and his children taking the first commercial flight into space will go down in history as one of the most memorable events on television,” is exactly how you go about it.)

Lopez-Alegria cited the XCOR’s suborbital Lynx and World View’s newly-announced stratosphere balloon ride as (hopefully) relatively affordable options that will give regular people an opportunity to experience the overview effect. White, meanwhile, hopes that an organization like the Overview Institute might one day be able to offer scholarships to the kinds of people that might have the unique ability to communicate the feeling to those of us who remain gravity-bound.

“Thank you for coming to my personal therapy session,” former NASA astronaut Michael Lopez-Alegria joked at yesterday’s discussion on the “overview effect” at the National Air and Space Museum. He explained that people like himself, a Navy pilot, and fellow panelist Sandy Magnus, who has a PhD in materials science and engineering, are chosen by NASA to be astronauts largely for their technical skill, not their ability to “communicate touchy-feely things.” Which makes it difficult to translate the profound psychological effect that seeing Earth from above has on a person. (Or as Jodie Foster’s Ellie Arroway remarks, “They should have sent a poet.”)

The event began with a showing of Overview, a documentary on the effect released last year by the Planetary Collective. The 20-minute film, viewed nearly four million times, was a stepping stone to their upcoming feature-length documentary, Continuum, about our “interconnection with each other, the planet, and the universe.”

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