Astronauts

The Overview Effect Describes How Leaving Earth Changes Your Perspective

Many things happen when you go to space. There are shifts in your eyesight, the shape of your heart, even in the way you speak. The most notable shift, however, happens in your mind. Looking down on our tiny planet from way up there in space has changed the perspective of many a returning astronaut. That phenomenon is called the overview effect.

A Pale Blue Dot

Apollo 14 pilot Edgar Mitchell was the sixth person to walk on the moon. When he came back, he reflected on the way his trip to space changed his perspective on the world. "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," he said. "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 b*tch."

The most famous example of the overview effect may be from Carl Sagan. In 1990, the Voyager 1 probe was just finishing its grand tour of our solar system, soon to be lost to communication, when Sagan suggested that the engineers turn it around for one last snapshot of Earth. At 4 billion miles (6.4 billion kilometers) away, it captured our world, a tiny speck sitting in a single scattered ray of sunlight. The image inspired Sagan to write this famous passage in his 1994 book "Pale Blue Dot."

"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," he wrote. "Our posturings, our imagined self-importance, the delusion that we have some privileged position in the Universe, are challenged by this point of pale light. Our planet is a lonely speck in the great enveloping cosmic dark. In our obscurity, in all this vastness, there is no hint that help will come from elsewhere to save us from ourselves."

The famous Pale Blue Dot image. That white speck in the orange beam isn't dust on your screen—it's Earth.

How Humanity Can Benefit From a New View

Of course, not all of us get to have this literally world-shifting change in our mindset at hundreds of miles up. But there are scientists who want to give us the closest thing. In May 2008, 22 experts in science, technology, and art founded the Overview Institute with the mission to "educate both the space community and the general public on the nature and psychosocial impact of the space experience." Their hope is to find better ways to communicate exactly what astronauts experience when they're up there, both through new forms of media and, perhaps in the future, with better access to commercial space travel for regular people. But what can you do now? We recommend diving into NASA's image library and letting yourself become one with the universe.

To read all of Carl Sagan's pivotal work, be sure to check out "Pale Blue Dot: A Vision of the Human Future in Space." If you choose to make a purchase through that link, Curiosity will get a share of the sale.

What Happens When You See the Earth from Space?

Written by Ashley Hamer April 26, 2017

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