The Overview Effect

On last Sunday’s episode of Mad Men, set in 1969, NASA touches down on the moon for the first time. The responses of the folks back on earth range from delight—Bert Cooper cackles “Bravo” upon hearing Neil Armstrong’s famous line about “One giant leap for mankind”—to cynicism (when a teenager declaims that it’s a colossal waste of money). As the writers of Mad Men knew, going to the moon provoked a lot of reactions.

Perhaps most dramatic were the ones amongst the astronauts themselves. Going into space, it seems, dramatically changed the way they viewed life and humanity. There’s a name for this cosmic turn: “The Overview Effect”, coined by the author Frank White in his book of the same title. It is, as he calls it, the radical shift in perspective that comes from being able to step away from the Earth and see it from afar.

White interviewed dozens of astronauts, and includes transcripts of their conversations in the book. They’re pretty spellbinding. As you might expect, the Overview Effect produces a lot of psychological wonder and spiritual reflection. But most pointedly, nearly every astronaut felt a sense of artificiality and absurdity about national identity, strife, and war.

Here’s Russell Schweickart, who flew on Apollo 9, and looked back at Earth from a quarter-million miles away. As he puts it:

[The Earth] is so small and so fragile and such a precious little spot in the universe that you can block it out with your thumb, and you realize on that small spot, that little blue and white thing, is everything that means anything to you — all of history and music and poetry and art and death and birth and love, tears, joy, games, all of it on that little spot out there that you can cover with your thumb. And you realize from that perspective that you’ve changed, that there’s something new there, that the relationship is no longer what it was.

Schweickart later flew on Skylab, and described in this fashion the sensation of zooming repeatedly around the planet:

When you go around the Earth in an hour and a half … you look down there and you can’t imagine how many borders and boundaries you cross, again and again and again, and you don’t even see them … You’re really out there, going twenty-five thousand miles an hour, ripping through space, a vaccum. And there’s not a sound. There’s a silence the depth of which you’ve never experienced before, and that silence contrasts so markedly with the scenery you’re seeing and speed with which you know you’re moving.

Many of the astronauts say they were struck by how small the scale of a human life is compared to the infinity of time and space. This can, of course, sound like the typical Buddhism-lite whoa-dude epiphany of stoners in dorm rooms, though one can rather forgive the Apollo crews: They came by the epiphany honestly. As Edward Gibson, who flew on Apollo 12, puts it:

You see how diminutive your life and concerns are compared to other things in the universe. Your life and concerns are important to you, of course. But you can see that a lot of the things that you worry about don’t make much difference in an overall sense. The result is that you enjoy the life that is before you; you don’t sweat so much about the next milestone … It allows you to have inner peace.

Here’s Eugene Cernan, who flew on Apollos 10 and 17, and Gemini 9, and was the last man to walk on the moon:

You can see from pole to pole and ocean to ocean without even turning your head .... You literally see North and South America go around the corner as the Earth turns on an axis you can’t see and then miraculously Australia, then Asia, than all of America comes up to replace them. You see a multicolored three-dimensional picture of Earth. You begin to see how little we understand of time. You ask yourself the question where really am I in space and time?

Others marveled at the deep aesthetic joys of the Overview Effect. In 1985, Edwin Garn flew on a Space Shuttle mission that attempted to rescue a satellite. He wound up having a crazily gorgeous experience along the way:

Toward the end of our mission, after we tried to rescue the satellite, I wanted to do one complete orbit of the Earth, uninterrupted, all the way around, which I did, floating on the flight deck, listening to Swan Lake. It was so fantastic and so beautiful, and I felt guilty, thinking about my family, my wife and seven kids. My feeling was that I’d seen and done it all, and I didn’t care whether I came back or not; it really didn’t make any difference. It wasn’t that I didn’t want to, but if something happened, we didn’t come back, fine, so be it, just utter peace and contentment and fulfillment.

Many of the astronauts that White interviews argue that the experience would be a powerful political tonic, if you could somehow impel it upon the rulers of the planet. As Joseph Allen, a veteran of several Space-Shuttle flights, said:

A steady stream of world leaders should go into orbit. It would have a profound affect on their wisdom .... It is similar to the time of Copernicus; we have a broadened view of our place in the universe, and more educated view.

Is this actually true? Could more space travel—more first-person experiences of Overview, particularly by the powerful—actually reduce strife on Earth? That’s hard to say. We have a long history of generating excited predictions about the utopian effects of new technologies for travel or communication. In 1907, the feminist thinker Charlotte Perkins Gilman predicted that the advent of air travel would bring about “aerial” man, one so transformed by the experience that he “cannot think of himself further as a worm of the dust, but as a butterfly, psyche, the risen soul”. White himself often drifts into this terrain. But many of the astronauts seem aware of the limits of this giddy boosterism. “It wouldn’t bring a utopia to this planet for people to understand it all,” as Cernan concludes, “but it might make a difference.”

Me, I confess I’m drawn to the romanticism of the Overview Effect. I like the idea of actively seeking out experiences that unmoor our sense of self, and shift our perspective. And as White notes, one needn’t go to space to get a cosmic view. The Effect can be triggered by powerful art—anything that pivots you into a new way of seeing things, or, as Northrop Frye would put it, educates your imagination. A lot of environmentalists in the 1970s described seeing the famous “Blue Marble” photo of the Earth—taken at 20,000 miles away by the receding Apollo 17 spacecraft—as a catalytic moment in realizing just how fragile the environment might be. Ecologist Donald Worster called the photo “a stunning revelation,” adding that “its thin film of life” was “far thinner and far more vulnerable than anyone had ever imagined.”

In his book Moondust, the author Andrew Smith argues that the moon landing was in some respects an art project, as gesture “as primitive as song”. We went there not so much to see the moon as to gaze back at Earth. It was “a unique opportunity to look at ourselves,” he writes, an accomplishment less of technology than of aesthetics, culture, and spirituality. “How madly, perfectly human.” Many of the astronauts White interviews in The Overview Effect lament the difficulty they have in putting their new perspective into words, of communicating its sheerly alien quality to other people. Gemini X astronaut Michael Collins concluded that that the ideal crew for an Apollo mission would have been a “philosopher, a priest, and a poet.” (“Unfortunately,” he added, “they would kill themselves trying to fly the spacecraft.”)

Today, of course, some of our biggest challenges—I’m thinking specifically of global warming—require taking a massively global perspective. The era of human space exploration is in a relatively dormant period, but I’m hoping it’s only a hiatus. We could use more opportunities to look back from afar.

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