Seeing Earth from Space Is the Key to Saving Our Species from Itself
The Overview Effect is the motivational kick-in-the-butt we need to save humanity from extinction and journey beyond our home world.
STS-116 crew performing extravehicular duties in 2006 with New Zealand in background. Photo: NASA
When Yuri Gagarin became the first human to orbit the Earth in April 1961, he carried centuries of hopes and dreams into space with him. Visionaries had long struggled to picture the expanse beyond Earth's skies, with its mind-boggling scale and promise of a new frontier for human exploration.
But when Gagarin arrived back on firm ground, what seemed to have impacted him the most was not the vast spectacle of the universe outside our planet. It was the view of Earth within it.
"Circling the Earth in my orbital spaceship, I marveled at the beauty of our planet," he remarked following his historic voyage. "People of the world, let us safeguard and enhance this beauty, and not destroy it."
Taken on its own, Gagarin's testimonial about Earth's epiphanic loveliness could be chalked up to his exuberant personality. But over the decades, as hundreds of people have followed his lead into space and returned to tell their travelers' tales, a pattern has begun to emerge. Regardless of differences in nationality, gender, or worldview, astronauts commonly report feelings of heightened awareness and profound rapture while observing the Earth from such a distant vantagepoint.
This phenomenon has become known as the Overview Effect, a phrase coined in 1987 by the author and space philosopher Frank White. As defined in White's book The Overview Effect: Space Exploration and Human Evolution (currently in its third edition), it is "a cognitive shift in awareness" linked to "the experience of seeing firsthand the reality that the Earth is in space."
"My hypothesis was that being in space, you would see and know something experientially that we have been trying to understand intellectually for thousands of years," White told me over the phone. "That is, that the Earth is a whole system, everything on it is connected, and we're a part of it."
White has never experienced the Overview Effect firsthand from space, but he has spent much of his career interviewing astronauts about their recollections and impressions of it. These accounts are extraordinarily consistent in their emphasis on the raw power of seeing the Earth from great distances.
"I have probably looked at as many pictures from space as anybody...so I knew exactly what [I] was going to see," said Space Shuttle astronaut Don L. Lind, as quoted in The Overview Effect. "There was no intellectual preparation I hadn't made. But there is no way you can be prepared for the emotional impact. It was a moving enough experience that it brought tears to my eyes."
"That beautiful, warm living object looked so fragile, so delicate, that if you touched it with a finger it would crumble and fall apart," wrote Apollo 15 astronaut James Irwin in his 1973 autobiography To Rule the Night. "Seeing this has to change a man, has to make a man appreciate the creation of God and the love of God."
"It is all connected, it is all interdependent," said NASA astronaut Sandra Magnus in an interview with White. "You look out the window, and in my case, I saw the thinness of the atmosphere, and it really hit home, and I thought, 'Wow, this is a fragile ball of life that we're living on.' It is hard for you to appreciate that until you are outside of it."
Cosmonaut Boris Volynov described the experience as a re-shaping of the psyche that made him "more full of life, softer [...] and more kind and patient," as quoted in Philip Shepherd's 2011 book New Self, New World.
"The actual experience exceeds all expectations and is something that's hard to put to words," recalled Anousheh Ansari, an Iranian-American engineer and space tourist, according to The Overview Institute (an organization co-founded by White). "It sort of reduces things to a size that you think everything is manageable."
"The thing that stuck out to me was the shades of blue that I had never seen before," NASA astronaut Terry Virts told me earlier this year. "It's just an emotionally intense experience to see Earth. To look back at your home planet is not anything normal."
"When I ﬁrst looked back at the Earth, standing on the Moon, I cried," confessed Alan Shepard, commander of Apollo 14 and the first American to visit space, in a 1988 interview.
Shepard's crewmate, Apollo 14 lunar module pilot Edgar Mitchell, felt it too. "Something happens to you out there," Mitchell said, according to The Week.
This visceral "something" is more than a simple shift in perspective. A growing number of thinkers believe the Overview Effect heralds nothing less than the next "giant leap" of human evolution. As breathtaking space-down views of our world seep into our cultural consciousness, people are waking up to the "Spaceship Earth" analogy that casts our planet as a natural vessel with limited resources that must be steered responsibly by its crew.
This waxing cosmic awareness has also made it abundantly clear that the long-term survival of our species depends on leaving Earth partly because, as author Warren Ellis bluntly put it, "keeping all your breeding pairs in one place" is a short-sighted way to run a species.
In the far future, this might lead to a splintering of our current terrestrial incarnation as Homo sapiens into several offshoots dispersed across the solar system, and even beyond it.
White calls these speculative descendents "Homo spaciens," defined in his book as a "radically different kind of human being [...] highly adapted to living in the conditions of space and poorly adapted to the surfaces of planets." Some science fiction authors have already flirted with the potential consequences of this genetic and cultural speciation, notably Daniel Abraham and Ty Franck, who co-wrote The Expanse series.
It's an exciting, if intimidating, vision of the future. But given humanity's history of aggressive expansion and canny adaptation to extreme conditions, it does not seem particularly farfetched. With that in mind, it's worth speculating on what kind of beings we want to emerge on the other side of this great evolutionary divide.
"The Overview Effect has become a symbol of unity on planet Earth," White told me. "But I am concerned that we will lose that unity as we move out into the solar system if we don't think about what we're doing, and come up with a new philosophy, or metaphor, or systematic approach to space exploration."
Humans have a well-documented habit of rushing into grand adventures before thinking through the results, or coming to a consensus about our shared goals. We repeat many of the same mistakes through time and across continents. Many spaceflight advocates think the Overview Effect offers a powerful antidote to these self-destructive behaviors because it starkly exposes our precarious cosmic position, and so inspires great respect for our planet and its inhabitants. Perhaps that is the motivational kick in the butt that our species-at-large needs to save itself from extinction and embark on journeys beyond our home world.
If that's the case, the Overview Effect should be made accessible to as many people as possible. But given the cost of human spaceflight, is it reasonable to expect that a sizable population could ever have access to this paradigm shift? If not, could the Overview Effect be democratized in other ways—for instance, through virtual reality?
Perhaps the most important thing is whether or not popularizing the Overview Effect would actually impact human behavior on and off Earth. Could something as simple as staring our planet in the face really be the key to protecting and even transcending it?
In order to bring the Overview Effect down to Earth, so to speak, researchers must first understand the psychological and neurological forces at play when astronauts experience it.
Fortunately, there appear to be a lot of overlapping elements to the experience of having one's brain doped up on Earth's beauty. Broadly speaking, space travelers report feelings of transcendence, spiritual awakening, euphoria, and epiphanic oneness with the planet and its inhabitants. Many cite the mesmerizing richness of Earth's lush colors, or the obvious lack of artificial national borders. Astronauts may feel permanently changed by the Overview Effect, enacting lifelong modifications to their habits and outlook when they return to the planet.
The 2012 short film "Overview," released in tandem with the 40th anniversary of Apollo 17's iconic "Blue Marble" picture, delves into some of these accounts in more detail. Video: The Planetary Collective/VIMEO
"The feeling of unity is not simply an observation," said Soyuz 14 cosmonaut Yury Artyukhin, as quoted in a 2011 Health Studies Collegium. "With it comes a strong sense of compassion and concern for the state of our planet and the effect humans are having on it."
David Yaden, a research fellow who studies self-transcendent experiences at the University of Pennsylvania's Positive Psychology Center, thinks these reports of the Overview Effect correlate to the transformative power of awe in humans.
In a recent paper published in the journal Psychology of Consciousness: Theory, Research, and Practice, Yaden and his co-authors suggest the effect is related to two well-known triggers of awe: perceptual vastness and conceptual vastness.
"Perceptual vastness is like seeing the Grand Canyon, whereas conceptual vastness comes from contemplating big ideas, like evolution or infinity," Yaden told me. "We think that the Overview Effect triggers awe through both conceptual and perceptual vastness."
This emotional double-whammy is normally a positive experience. When confronted with "how diminutive your life and concerns are compared to other things in the universe," as Skylab 4 astronaut Edward Gibson put it in The Overview Effect, "it allows you to have inner peace."
Sometimes, astronauts do feel shades of sadness, anxiety, or fear when looking at Earth, though those emotions can amplify the overall sense that our world is beautiful, precious, and worthy of long-term preservation.
"We think that the Overview Effect triggers awe through both conceptual and perceptual vastness."
Yaden thinks these positive mental health benefits should play a role in optimizing astronaut well-being as humans push farther into space. He is also interested in experimenting with simulating some of the effect's revelatory impact to people on Earth, through immersive technologies.
"Our first studies on the Overview Effect will use existing VR platforms, but we are looking to partner with space tourism companies, virtual reality program developers, and even planetariums to expand the contexts in which we can evoke and measure the effects of awe experiences like those reported by astronauts," he told me.
Entrepreneurs are also interested in relaying versions of the Overview Effect to a global audience. Last year, I talked to the founders of SpaceVR, a startup that is shooting to send VR cameras to orbit in 2017. Appropriately enough, the company's flagship model is named Overview 1.
"Since Yuri Gagarin, we've had 540 people experience the Earth from space," former SpaceVR CTO Isaac DeSouza* told me then (at the time of this reporting, the number is 549). "Five-hundred forty people experiencing space is a novelty. One million people experiencing it is a movement. One billion people, and we've revolutionized how the planet thinks of the Earth."
For their part, astronauts are also eager to popularize the space-down view of Earth. Take the work of recent ISS crews, who filmed dozens of hours of high-definition digital footage from the station for the IMAX film A Beautiful Planet released this past April.
"I would say that the astronauts and cosmonauts [of the ISS] are desperate to share that experience," NASA astronaut Kjell Lindgren told me at a press event for the film. "It is such a unique perspective. The Earth is so beautiful."
Multiple Apollo Program astronauts have specifically suggested that world leaders and policy-makers should travel to orbit or the Moon for some perspective on the territories they manage.
"I really believe that if the political leaders of the world could see their planet from a distance of 100,000 miles their outlook could be fundamentally changed," Apollo 11 command module pilot Michael Collins said in a 2009 interview with NASA.
Apollo 14 astronaut Edgar Mitchell came to the same conclusion, though he expressed it somewhat less diplomatically: "From out there on the Moon, international politics look so petty," he told People magazine in 1974. "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.'"
Mitchell, who passed away earlier this year, paints a colorful picture, especially in the exhausting political climate of 2016. But while many astronauts have gone on to pursue politics, the reverse career trajectory does not seem to be as popular.
That said, the ongoing efforts of the spaceflight community have given the public a taste of what astronauts see and feel when beholding the planet from on high. The enormous cultural impact of iconic images like "Earthrise," "Blue Marble," or "Pale Blue Dot" have helped inspire a new age of "terranauts," a term White uses to describe people who have "achieved 'astronaut awareness' without going to orbit or to the Moon."
Judging by the widespread celebration of these stunning Earth portraits, millions of terranauts may be wandering our planet. The vicarious view of Earth from space has, after all, become one of the most viral memes in history, resonating with people far beyond the space sector, including renowned mythologist Joseph Campbell.
"With our view of 'Earthrise,' we could see that the Earth and the heavens were no longer divided but that the Earth is in the heavens," Campbell said in a 1979 interview with The New York Times. "We can no longer look for a spiritual order outside of our own experience. That challenges the old ideas that our fate is being decided 'out there' by the gods."
In this way, these distant snapshots of our planet have stimulated deeper spiritual ruminations about our purpose that might normally be sidelined by the empiric mindset that can dominate the spaceflight community.
The vicarious view of Earth from space has become one of the most viral memes in history.
"I've talked about [the Overview Effect] being a message from the universe to humanity, in the sense that it is a fundamental shift in our understanding of who and where we are," White said. "The more people involved in grasping it and understanding it, the better."
Luckily, more people do seem to be grasping it. The Overview Effect is by no means a household term, though it is definitely trending in the zeitgeist. On October 5, for example, the musician Regina Spektor referenced the phenomenon in a Reddit AMA in response to a question about her upbringing in the former Soviet Union: "I [sic] have a lot of feelings on Russia and America at the moment, and i think we all need to think of ourselves as Planet Earth more than separate countries right now," Spektor wrote. "I met some astronauts recently and they spoke of the 'overview effect'... we all need to come together ASAP."
Spektor is not the only musician inspired by the mystical power of astronaut experiences. Motherboard's Ben Sullivan recently reported on a new album entitled "Overview Effect" from contemporary classical composer and multi-instrumentalist Roger Goula, who wanted "listeners to find themselves in that other state of mind without knowing how they got there."
"The experience should be transcendent and unique for everyone," Goula said.
Even President Barack Obama seems immersed in the larger narrative of the Overview Effect, judging by a new CNN op-ed posted on Tuesday outlining his vision for human Mars exploration.
"When our Apollo astronauts looked back from space, they realized that while their mission was to explore the moon, they had 'in fact discovered the Earth,'" Obama noted. "If we make our leadership in space even stronger in this century than it was in the last, we won't just benefit from related advances in energy, medicine, agriculture and artificial intelligence, we'll benefit from a better understanding of our environment and ourselves."
It often takes several decades, or even centuries, for huge cultural shifts like heliocentrism or evolution to be broadly digested by society. But the revelation that Earth is a "fragile oasis," in the words of NASA astronaut Ron Garan, seems to be finally hitting its stride beyond astronauts and space enthusiasts.
It's as if humans are entering a species-wide version of the "mirror stage," a phenomenon described by Jacques Lacan that refers to the developmental phase in which infants begin to recognize their own reflection in mirrors. Indeed, this idea of humans "coming of age" through spaceflight crops up repeatedly in discussion of the Overview Effect.
"Undoubtedly, the views of Earth from space have had a huge impact on both the cultural identity and self-consciousness of humanity," entrepreneur Marsal Gifra, who founded the human spaceflight advocacy group Homo Spaciens Foundation, told me. "As I see it, all of these photographs captured for the first time the image of the baby humanity still in the womb of Earth just before birth as cosmic beings."
At the same time, the Overview Effect remains abstract for the vast majority of the Earthbound population. Our daily lived experience as surface dwellers makes it difficult for us to perceive of the planet as a finite world with limited resources; even the most bleeding-edge immersive technologies can still only simulate the Overview Effect so far.
"I think methods like VR will reliably elicit awe and thus allow us to study some of the psychological processes involved [in the Overview Effect], but these simulations will clearly pale in comparison to what astronauts experience," Yaden told me.
"Remember, astronauts have worked most of their adult lives to get into space—never mind having just survived riding a rocket out of the atmosphere—so there are a lot of personal, professional, and existential meanings at play when they look out the window and see Earth," he added. "We will only be able to simulate a few aspects of this experience."
Earth is a small rock in a shooting gallery of astronomical perils, and as far as we know, the universe is inhospitable for several light years in every direction around it. No matter how many Carl Sagan-level thinkers eloquently expound on that point, people may need to make the ultimate pilgrimage and experience the planet the way astronauts do in order for it to really click.
It's difficult to predict how accessible space tourism will become to the public over the coming decades. But hypothetically, if this dream of popular space exploration comes to fruition and humans mobilize off Earth in large numbers, the Overview Effect may begin to lose some of its connective power.
After all, would the view of Earth still resonate for people who have never been to its surface, or perhaps couldn't even survive the gravity of it? Will the first children of Mars experience a Martian version of the Overview Effect when looking down at their planet from orbit? And how will this transformative experience evolve as Earth grows ever more distant in the rear window of its offspring?
White recently launched the Academy in Space Initiative to tackle some of these emerging questions. His goal is to foster an interdisciplinary discussion about the shared human vision for spaceflight and the potential roles that our civilization could play on a wider cosmic stage.
"Almost all justifications for space exploration to date involve how it benefits human beings," he told me. "But how do we benefit the universe? Why have we been supported by our environment so far, to become a spacefaring species? What is it we might be bringing to the universe?"
These questions have occupied the fringes of conversations about human spaceflight since the dawn of modern rocketry a century ago. The influential Russian rocketry pioneer Konstantin Tsiolkovsky, born in 1857, believed that space exploration was not only a crucial step in the maturation of our species, but also the will of an intelligent universe that seeks to unite all sentient creatures. He famously said: "Earth is the cradle of humanity, but one cannot live in a cradle forever."
American spaceflight goals, in contrast, are often interlinked with older concepts of manifest destiny, according to Albert Harrison, an expert in the psychology of spaceflight. One recent example concerns the California-based company Moon Express which, in August, became the first private company to be cleared for a lunar landing. In a press release, CEO Bob Richards referred to the Moon as the "eighth continent." This language evokes themes of Western frontierism, and frames the universe beyond Earth as an extension of our planet, and not the other way around.
"Almost all justifications for space exploration to date involve how it benefits human beings. But how do we benefit the universe?"
I'm not passing judgment on human space colonization as an avenue for wealth generation, human perfection, religious salvation, or any other speculative justification. I'm not even discounting arguments against off-Earth exploration, many of which question whether a species that has failed to take proper care of its home world and inhabitants has earned any right to expand to other frontiers. But given the kaleidoscopic range of views on human space exploration, it would be prudent to develop a common game plan for our potential future as Homo spaciens instead of stumbling into it blindly.
"Before considering the challenges for the development of off-Earth colonies, it is necessary to examine some of the most important motivations that might drive humans to colonize space and other planets," Gifra told me. He outlined five major examples: Basic survival of our species, the pursuit of wealth and power, the search for extraterrestrial life and intelligence, scientific advancement and pure exploration, and on a more transcendent note, the quest for God or the Divine.
From Gifra's perspective, the motivation to pursue wealth and power has typically been the primary driver of human expansion to new frontiers, and history is filled with cautionary tales about the inherent capriciousness of this approach.
"Given the current state of our planet—with diminishing natural resources, a growing population, loss of biodiversity, and of course, climate change—it would be a big mistake to ignore these lessons from past," he said. "And, in fact, the pursuit of colonizing space is not only an imperative in the face of our global challenges, but also our next 'growth' engine. The sooner we switch into an off-Earth economy, the faster we will tap into the unlimited resources of space for the benefit of all humankind. Upon us depends the way in which humanity faces its reality, imagines its future, and takes its next evolutionary leap forward."
Humanity's first steps into this expanded universe will have to find a careful middle ground with regards to resource management and population expansion. "I think that the philosophy of space exploration we are seeking should be one that balances exploration and exploitation, giving and taking," White said. "I think it is unrealistic to imagine that human beings will spend resources moving out into the solar system without expecting to use the resources they find there. However, that doesn't mean we can't devise a sustainable strategy for the effort."
"The question is whether we can look ahead and consider how we might treat the entire solar system as a whole, rather than just looking at discrete entities like the Moon, Mars, and asteroids," he continued. "The other question is whether we can have a wide-ranging and inclusive dialogue before we get too far down one road or the other."
Read more: The Metaphysical Astronauts
As our civilization wakes up to its cosmic context, it would benefit us to develop some foresight about the role we want to play as Homo spaciens in the universe. For all we know, we may be the only creatures in the cosmos to have figured out how to cast off from our planetary shores to explore the wonders outside of it. That is both an incredible achievement and a heavy responsibility. A global diversity of opinions and perspectives will be needed to manage it as we enter a post-Earth age.
"Soon humanity will be ready to leave this cradle called Earth to explore what lies behind and beyond," Gifra predicted. "From that tipping point, multiple side paths will spur off the main human evolutionary lineage bringing about the end of anthropocentrism―similar to what happened when geocentrism was dethroned."
In other words, democratization of the Overview Effect is only the starting point. If we are moving toward a future as a diversified family of spacefaring hominids—a cosmic riff on Darwin's finches—then we may lose that strong identification and connection with Earth that astronauts in Gagarin's footsteps so often report when they see our planet in full for the first time.
But perhaps that is a tradeoff that is essential to ensuring that Earth remains simply the cradle of humanity, and not its grave.
*Correction: A previous version of this story incorrectly identified Isaac DeSouza as CTO of SpaceVR. He is no longer with the company.
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