- People who fly to space and gaze back at Earth often say they feel a powerful “overview effect.”
- NASA astronaut Bob Behnken, whom SpaceX just launched into orbit on the rocket company’s first crewed mission, described the feeling in a recent interview from space.
- “You see that it’s a single planet with a shared atmosphere. It’s our shared place in this universe,” Behnken told CNBC.
- Though it’s often said you can’t see borders from space – you indeed can – the overview effect can make them all seem meaningless against the ink-black backdrop of the cosmos.
- Psychologists say the effect isn’t just a matter of idle curiosity, but perhaps an essential part of maintaining mental health on long-duration space missions.
- Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.
Riding atop a pillar of flames, fumes, and dust, two NASA astronauts – Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley – ascended to space on Saturday with the help of a Falcon 9 rocket.
The launch by SpaceX, founded by Elon Musk in 2002, represents the rocket company’s first flight of humans to orbit. It’s also the first orbital spaceflight from American soil since NASA retired its space shuttle program in July 2011.
Shortly after their launch, Behnken and Hurley floated out of their seats, slipped off their sleek new spacesuits, and peered out the atypically large windows of their Crew Dragon spaceship.
“We just passed off of the coast of Newfoundland and we’re headed over the Atlantic right now,” Hurley said during a tour of the new vessel, which they have since renamed Endeavour.
Such a view has been marveled at by hundreds of men and women since the start of the Space Age, but that doesn’t make it any less profound and transformative. In fact, many people who visit space and take in the finiteness of Earth describe an overwhelming and almost transcendental shift in perception, which space exploration author Frank White coined as the “overview effect” in 1987.
During an interview from the International Space Station, where Behnken and Hurley recently docked, Behnken remarked on the feeling.
“The overview effect [is what] astronauts typically achieve when they accomplish their first spaceflight and look back at the Earth,” Behnken told CNBC during a NASA media event. “You see that it’s a single planet with a shared atmosphere. It’s our shared place in this universe. So I think that perspective, as we go through things like the pandemic or we see the challenges across our nation or across the world, we recognise that we all face them together.”
How other astronauts describe the overview effect
White, who has not flown to space, says it’s not necessary to do so to experience the overview effect. In the introduction to his book, he said that he first felt it during a transcontinental flight while looking down at Washington DC; with a little imagination, he understood the interconnected and interrelated nature of everything on Earth, and it deeply moved him.
“[M]ental processes and views of life cannot be separated from physical location,” White wrote. “Our ‘world view’ as a conceptual framework depends quite literally on our view of the world from a physical place in the universe.”
But for astronauts, who may live in space for months or even a year, their physical place is soaring about 250 miles above Earth at a speed of 17,500 mph. This means their exposure to that shift in perspective, relative the vast majority of their lives on the ground, is essentially constant.
“It is endlessly fulfilling. You never quite see the same thing as you are orbiting. There is a different ground track every time. The time of day is different; the clouds are different. The cloud patterns show different colours. The oceans are different; the dust over the deserts is different. It doesn’t get repetitive,” Joseph P. Allen, a now-former NASA astronaut who flew twice aboard space shuttles, told White.
In a 2013 chapter from the Space Technology Library, astronaut Kathryn D. Sullivan shared similar remarks.
“It’s hard to explain how amazing and magical this experience is. First of all, there’s the astounding beauty and diversity of the planet itself, scrolling across your view at what appears to be a smooth, stately pace,” Sullivan is quoted as saying. “I’m happy to report that no amount of prior study or training can fully prepare anybody for the awe and wonder this inspires.”
A 19-minute documentary film titled “OVERVIEW,” released in 2013, gathers the impressions of many other astronauts, who explain their overview experiences and how those changed their frames of mind.
Jeff Hoffman, who launched to space five times aboard a space shuttle, said the following:
“You do, from that perspective, see the Earth as a planet. You see the sun as a star – we see the sun in a blue sky, but up there, you see the sun in a black sky. So, yeah, you are seeing it from the cosmic perspective.”
Nicole Stott, who flew two missions to orbit and spent more than 100 days total there:
“We have this connection to Earth. I mean, it’s our home. And I don’t know how you can come back and not, in some way, be changed. It may be subtle. You see difference in different people in their general response when they come back from space. But I think, collectively, everybody has that emblazoned on their memories, the way the planet looks. You can’t take that lightly.”
Ron Garan, an astronaut who spent 177 days in space:
“When we look down at the earth from space, we see this amazing, indescribably beautiful planet. It looks like a living, breathing organism. But it also, at the same time, looks extremely fragile…. Anybody else who’s ever gone to space says the same thing because it really is striking and it’s really sobering to see this paper-thin layer and to realise that that little paper-thin layer is all that protects every living thing on Earth from death, basically.”
‘You go to heaven when you’re born’
Those handful of astronauts who’ve had the chance to journey out beyond low-Earth orbit and to the moon have had perhaps the most profound experiences with the overview effect.
In a March 2017 interview with Business Insider, Apollo 8 astronaut Jim Lovell described the moment and context surrounding the crew’s famous “Earthrise” photo (above) taken during their voyage around the moon.
Apollo 8 lifted off on December 21, 1968, which Lovell described as “a hilarious time” for America and the rest of the planet.
“There was the Vietnam War going on, it was not a popular war, especially with the younger people,” Lovell told Business Insider. “There were riots, there were two assassinations of prominent people during that period, and so things were looking kind of bad in this country.”
“You have to remember we brought back a picture of the Earth as it is 240,000 miles away. And the fact is, it gives you a different perspective of the Earth when you see it as three-dimensional between the sun and the moon, and you begin to realise how small and how significant the body is,” he said. “When I put my thumb up to the window I could completely hide it, and then I realised that behind my thumb that I’m hiding this Earth, and there are about 6 billion people that are all striving to live there.”
Lovell said that if you really think about your existence in the universe – as seeing the Earth from afar forces one to do – the context of everything changes.
“People often say, ‘I hope to go to heaven when I die.’ In reality, if you think about it, you go to heaven when you’re born,” he said. “You arrive on a planet that has the proper mass, has the gravity to contain water and an atmosphere, which are the very essentials for life. And you arrive on this planet that’s orbiting a star just at the right distance – not too far to be too cold, or too close to be too hot – and just at the right distance to absorb that star’s energy and then, with that energy, cause life to evolve here in the first place.”
He added: “God has really given us a stage, just looking at where we were around the moon, a stage on which we perform. And how that play turns out is up to us.”
Psychologists think the overview effect is more than a curiosity
The overview effect isn’t just the stuff of space wanderlust, but perhaps of major significance to the success of missions beyond Earth.
That’s according to a 2016 study published by the American Psychological Association. The study’s six authors – a mixture of psychologists, psychiatrists, and medical doctors – noted the negative psychological challenges of human spaceflight (like isolation and fighting amongst fellow crew members) get a lot of attention, but not the potential benefits.
“The overview effect may be among the most meaningful aspects of space flight and may form an important buffer against some of the psychological risks of space missions,” the authors wrote.
In particular, the researchers suspect the frequent and powerful sensation of awe tied to the overview effect may help crews work together on a mission.
“Experiences of awe are associated with well-being, as well as altruistic and other prosocial behaviour,” they said.
dditionally, they say, awe leads to a flood of positive emotions, which prior research suggests not only heightens attention, but broadens a person’s capacity for it – a useful quality when a mistake can lead to a life-or-death moment.
“Positive emotions have been suggested to improve cardiovascular health, facilitate better collaboration in groups, and even enhance creativity,” they said.
This sentiment is perhaps best captured by cosmonaut Boris Volynov in a 1999 book by theologian Matthew Fox:
“During a space flight, the psyche of each astronaut is re-shaped; having seen the sun, the stars and our planet, you become more full of life, softer. You begin to look at all living things with greater trepidation and you begin to be more kind and patient with the people around you.”
Ivan De Luce contributed reporting.