The Overview Effect: Seeing Earth from Above Can Inspire Change

Being able to see Earth from space can have a humbling effect. It can also change people's perspective about planet Earth and life itself.
Matthew S. Williams

Since the beginning of the Space Age, scientists have understood that going into space can have a significant impact on human physiology. Long periods spent in microgravity, for example, are known to have an effect on the human musculoskeletal system - where muscles atrophy and bone density is lost.

According to NASA's famous Twin Study, organ function is another casualty of spaceflight, where the human liver, heart, and vascular system experience diminished function over time. Mark Kelly, who spent a year in space was part of the study, also experienced changes to his visual acuity and hearing as well as his sense of balance and orientation. Even genetic changes were reported as a result of his time in space.


And there are the long-term risks associated with increased exposure to radiation. In space, beyond Earth's protective atmosphere and magnetosphere, astronauts are exposed to between 50 and 2,000 mSv of radiation per year (about 8 to 320 times what people on Earth are exposed to).

However, one of the lesser-appreciated effects of space exploration is the profound effect it can have on the human mind. But unlike the physical changes that come with floating around in space (which are almost universally negative), being to space can have a profound impact on the way people think.

These include the way that seeing our planet in space can alter how we view it, the natural environment, and life as we know it. This has come to be known as the "Overview Effect".
Image of Earth taken aboard the Apollo 8 spacecraft, the first crewed mission to orbit the Moon. Credit: NASA


The term was coined by Frank White, the famed writer, Rhodes scholar and space advocate who has written or co-written eight books on the subject of space exploration. White explored the concept in his 1987 book, The Overview Effect: Space Exploration and Human Evolution.

As he described the phenomenon in this work: "The Overview Effect is the experience of seeing the Earth from a distance, especially from orbit or the Moon, and realizing the inherent unity and oneness of everything on the planet. The Effect represents a shift in perception wherein the viewer moves from identification with parts of the Earth to identification with the whole system."

While the term owes its existence to Frank White, the nature of the Overview Effect itself has been felt and described in one way or another by generations of space explorers and scientists who have had the privilege of seeing Earth from space. Some of the most famous instances come from the handful of astronauts who participated in the first (and last) crewed missions beyond Earth.

Consider Russell "Rusty" Schweickart, who flew to space as part of the Apollo 9 mission from March 3rd to March 13th, 1969. The purpose of this mission was to verify the Lunar Module (LM) for operations around the Moon, which consisted of it docking with the Command Service Module

While waiting to conduct a postponed spacewalk outside the LM, he suddenly reported having a euphoric sensation, and the feeling that all things were connected. “When you go around the Earth in an hour and a half, you begin to recognize that your identity is with that whole thing," he said of the experience. "That makes a change… it comes through to you so powerfully that you’re the sensing element for Man.”

In 1971, Alan Shephard (the first American to go into space) and Edgar Mitchell became the fifth and sixth astronauts to walk on the Moon, as part of the Apollo 14 mission. While seeing the Earth, the Sun, and the stars from the lunar surface, he became profoundly aware that humans, animals, and environmental systems were a part of the same thing - a synergistic whole - and that everything in the Universe was connected.

“Instead of an intellectual search, there was suddenly a very deep gut feeling that something was different. It occurred when looking at Earth and seeing this blue-and-white planet floating there, and knowing it was orbiting the Sun, seeing that Sun, seeing it set in the background of the very deep black and velvety cosmos, seeing - rather, knowing for sure - that there was a purposefullness of flow, of energy, of time, of space in the cosmos - that it was beyond man's rational ability to understand, that suddenly there was a nonrational way of understanding that had been beyond my previous experience.

"There seems to be more to the universe than random, chaotic, purposeless movement of a collection of molecular particles. On the return trip home, gazing through 240,000 miles of space toward the stars and the planet from which I had come, I suddenly experienced the universe as intelligent, loving, harmonious.”

From these descriptions, one can see some common themes emerge. For one, the experience of seeing the planet as a whole appears to lead to the realization that all life on Earth is interconnected. A second realization is that all the division, petty squabbles, and short-sightedness of humanity become all the more apparent and troubling, leading to a desire to change them.

“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," as Mitchell described 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 bitch.”

"Pale Blue Dot":

However, perhaps the most famous description of the Overview Effect was made by Carl Sagan in his famous "Pale Blue Dot" speech, which he delivered at Cornell University in 1994. This speech was inspired by an image taken of Earth by the Voyager 1 spacecraft when it was at a record distance of about 6 billion kilometers (3.7 billion miles) from Earth - that's over 40 times the distance between the Earth and the Sun.
Earth, described by scientist Carl Sagan as a "Pale Blue Dot," as seen by Voyager 1 from a distance of more than 6.4 billion km (4 billion mi). Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

This was just after the spacecraft had passed through the Saturn system to study the gas giant, its ring system, and its many moons. This photograph was taken because of a request by Sagan, who felt it would be a powerful addition to the mission's Family Portrait series of images of the Solar System.

The image was expected to be it's last since Voyager 1 was not originally intended to function beyond the Saturn encounter. Though this might seem strange considering how Voyager 1 and 2 are currently the only spacecraft to have entered interstellar space. But at the time, Sagan and his colleagues believed this could be the last photo the mission obtained.

The results were inspiring to say the least. As Sagan said while sharing the resulting photograph with the residents of the overcrowded lecture hall:

"Look again at that dot. That's here. That's home. That's us. On it everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives. The aggregate of our joy and suffering, thousands of confident religions, ideologies, and economic doctrines, every hunter and forager, every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer of civilization, every king and peasant, every young couple in love, every mother and father, hopeful child, inventor and explorer, every teacher of morals, every corrupt politician, every "superstar," every "supreme leader," every saint and sinner in the history of our species lived there--on a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam."

The Voyager 1 mission, the photograph, and the inspiration it provided were also the subject of Sagan's book Pale Blue Dot: A Vision of the Human Future in Space, which was released in 1994. 

"It has been said that astronomy is a humbling and character-building experience. There is perhaps no better demonstration of the folly of human conceits than this distant image of our tiny world. To me, it underscores our responsibility to deal more kindly with one another, and to preserve and cherish the pale blue dot, the only home we've ever known."

Gaia Hypothesis:

The concept was first formulated by the famed chemist, environmentalist, and futurist James Lovelock during the 1960s. At the time, Lovelock was working with the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory to develop methods for detecting life on Mars. This was a major focus of the Mariner program, which aimed to send robotic probes to investigate Mars, Venus, and Mercury.

After studying both Mars and Venus in relation to Earth, he began to notice telltale indications of how life played a crucial role in maintaining the very conditions that were necessary for life. For starters, he determined that life could be detected on a planetary scale by observing the chemical composition of a planet's atmosphere.

Second, he noted how, on a geological time scale, conditions on Earth changed drastically as a result of increases in Solar radiation and the chemical content of the atmosphere. However, over longer periods of time, the environment remained in a state of relative equilibrium, thanks to the feedback mechanisms provided by the presence of terrestrial life.

Lovelock described the Gaia hypothesis in a letter to the editor, which accompanied the scientific paper he submitted to the British scientific journal Atmospheric Environment in 1972. As he wrote, the purpose of the paper was to suggest that:

"[Life] at an early stage of its evolution acquired the capacity to control the global environment to suit its needs and that this capacity has persisted and is still in active use. In this view the sum total of species is more than just a catalog, 'The Biosphere', and like other associations in biology is an entity with properties greater than the simple sum of its parts. Such a large creature, even if only hypothetical, with the powerful capacity to homeostat the planetary environment, needs a name; I am indebted to William Golding for suggesting the use of the Greek personification of mother Earth, 'Gaia'."

André Kuipers and Spacebuzz:

Another important aspect of the Overview Effect is how people who have experienced it have done their best to go on and share it with others. This should come as no surprise, given the profound sense of inspiration that comes from seeing the world as an undivided, interconnected whole.

The Overview Effect: Seeing Earth from Above Can Inspire Change
Astronaut André Kuipers and some "Earth ambassadors" at SpaceBuzz. Credit: SpaceBuzz

However, as with most life-changing experiences, words never seem to cut it. Especially when you're trying to convey what it feels like to suddenly understand just how rare and precious life is. Hence why many within the space exploration community have become dedicated to outreach programs designed to teach the basics of the Overview Effect to the younger generation.

One such person is André Kuipers, a Dutch astronaut with the European Space Agency (ESA) who traveled to the International Space Station (ISS) twice. In addition to being one of only a few Dutch astronauts to go to space, he is the only Dutch astronaut to return to space again.

As Kuipers told Interesting Engineer via email, the desire to go to space was something that drove him from a young age:

"It started when I was twelve years old and my grandmother gave me some Perry Rhodan science-fiction books. But also the picture of an astronaut eating M&Ms in space made me think: ‘I want to do that too!’ When I found out that the space agencies also hired ‘normal scientists’ and not only ‘supermen’ I decided to go for it."

His first mission to the ISS took place in 2004 as part of the DELTA mission (Expedition 8/9), which consisted of 21 experiments being conducted aboard the station, as well as educational and PR activities. His second mission took place in 2011 as part of Expedition 30/31, which conducted further experiments into the biological effects of weightlessness and also tested out a new supply-delivery system.

However, it was the privilege of seeing Earth from space that really stuck with Kuipers. "[It was] like nothing else," he said. "The first time was a truly magical experience to see the blue planet against the backdrop of the darkness of space. This view is unbelievable."

To share that experience, Kuipers became an integral part of the non-profit organization, SpaceBuzz. Consisting of professionals, futurists, thinkers, designers, and all-around space enthusiasts, SpaceBuzz was conceived and developed by a team of "dreamers" to allow children from all over the world to experience the Overview Effect.

At the core of SpaceBuzz is a rocket-like vehicle that measures 15 meters (50 ft) in length and comes equipped with the latest in virtual reality and augmented reality technologies. Once onboard, children will experience an immersive mixed-reality experience that simulates what it is like to travel to space and see the Earth through the eyes of an astronaut.

By experiencing what it is like to go to space, from take-off and orbit to landing, children will be able to share in a unique experience that few get to enjoy. As Kuipers described the Effect:

"The feeling is truly profound. You see the beauty of our planet, but also its fragility. It made me realize we must do everything in our power to protect our fragile planet. One of the official tasks of an astronaut is to do ‘outreach’ and tell about our experiences. That’s what I do, and SPACEBUZZ helps me share my knowledge and passion for this planet by creating ‘Ambassadors of Planet Earth’."

The Overview Effect: Seeing Earth from Above Can Inspire Change
The SpaceBuzz rocket mixed-reality experience. Credit: SpaceBuzz

Related: A Non-Profit Aims to Educate Children to Be the Ambassadors of the Planet Earth

Creating "Ambassadors of Earth":

Beyond sharing the experience of going to space, the goal of SpaceBuzz is to introduce students (age 9-11) to specific issues relating to science, technology, and sustainability. Research has shown that children in this age group are most receptive to these themes, and introducing them early on will help prepare them for the challenges of growing up in the 21st century.

As SpaceBuzz's team of "dreamers" told IE via email:

"Ambassadors of Planet Earth are children that will do everything in their power to take care of our planet today, and for future generations. Our goal is that by creating a generation of children who think differently about the earth, we will be able to help sustain our planet's habitability and its resources for longer. That's our mission and we're thrilled to have the likes of André onboard to help spread our message to schools worldwide." 

By presenting them with the issues of sustainable development and climate change, in a way that is fun and easy to learn, SpaceBuzz hopes to inspire young students to make positive contributions to society as they get older. In this respect, students will be taught to be "ambassadors of Earth", using their skills and energies to advocate for change and look for solutions.

As they indicate on their website, SpaceBuzz's educational program was specifically developed to be in line with the actual career of an astronaut. This consists of three elements that, taken together, require a total investment of just 15 hours.
The SpaceBuzz rocket, which provides an immersive, mixed-reality experience that simulates what it's like to go to space. Credit: SpaceBuzz

The lessons are delivered by educators who are assisted by the intuitive and digital learning environment specially-created by SpaceBuzz, which they've aptly named Mission Control. As the dreamers explained:

"It begins at the school. We have created a research supported learning program, inspired by a real astronaut's training, that consists of three parts. In their 'pre-flight training', children are taught about space, the solar system and our planet earth in a digital mission control platform. 

"Then, as the ultimate part of the mission, they step onto our custom-built SPACEBUZZ rocket and are given a virtual reality space-flight guided by André Kuipers himself. afterwards, they then give a press conference to friends and family – just like real astronauts."

"The idea is that by recreating the overview effect in these children at a young age, they will be inspired to become 'Ambassadors of Planet Earth'".

The Future of Earth and Space:

The efforts of SpaceBuzz and other non-profit space educational organizations is simple: help the next generation of people appreciate planet Earth in a way that can only come from seeing it as an undivided whole. Until now, this sort of experience was only available to people willing and able to go to space.

But thanks to recent leaps and bounds made in terms of augmented and virtual reality, this could be changing rapidly. Looking ahead, the dreamers hope to expand their model so that children everywhere can benefit from the experience:

"We have very big plans, yes. First we're looking at expanding internationally with a free of charge model. To do this we need investment, so for example $325,000 would build us a new rocket that we can take to schools in the US. 

"Ultimately, taking things for the next level with us is about reaching every child and family on Earth, so we're looking for ways everyone can help fund us as a non-profit on our mission."

The ability to let students experience what it is like to go to space is also in keeping with the spirit of the current age of space exploration. In the past, few people outside of astronauts and those who worked for space agencies were able to play a role in space missions.

But thanks to the birth of the internet, social media, streaming video services, crowdsourcing and crowdfunding, and the NewSpace industry, regular people are able to take part in space exploration like never before. And the timing could not be better, considering all of the hurdles civilization will have to overcome if it hopes to make it out of this century intact!


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