December 7, 2012
Twenty-five years ago, writer Frank White came up with a name for the profound aesthetic — almost religious — feeling that many astronauts report after seeing the Earth from space. He called it The Overview Effect, and wrote a book and founded an institute of the same name to explore the phenomenon further. Now, to mark the 40th anniversary of the famous Apollo 17 “Blue Marble” photo, there’s a documentary film.
The folks at the Overview Institute are aware that this is all a little too touchy-feely for some people. As they say on their website, “The Overview Effect, while intuitively valid to many, is often marginalized as a philosophical, metaphysical or aesthetic epiphany, not the fundamental perspective-altering experience that both astronauts and scientists suggest that it is.”
I used to be skeptical myself. I figured the view of Earth from space would be breath-taking, sure, but just an extension of other awe-inspiring natural sights. But after hearing many astronauts — who tend to be practical, no-nonsense people – talk about the experience, I’m prepared to accept that there’s something qualitatively different about seeing the planet from space.
I often recall this observation by Millie Hughes-Fulford, a scientist who flew on the shuttle in 1991, and who contributed to our 2002 oral history Space Shuttle: The First 20 Years:
When you look down on the planet and realize how small it is, it’s really very interesting—you have emotions you didn’t think you were going to have. My name is not “Moonbeam,” but when you look at the planet and realize it’s the only place you can see that has life on it, you start feeling very protective toward it. It’s like a delicate crystal ball, and it looks alive. The first time I looked at it, I thought it was alive. When I’m looking at living cells in a microscope, they have a glow to them that dead cells don’t. And the whole planet had that iridescence of life about it. It moved me.
Harvard is sponsoring a live-streamed forum on the Overview Effect this evening, and you can see the film on Vimeo (click their logo on the screen to watch it at higher resolution):