Why “up there” means so much “down here.”
The ‘overview effect’ is common among astronauts, and anyone who has seen our world from outer space. Essentially, seeing the Earth from orbit, gives one a sense of the planet’s extraordinary beauty and vulnerability. Author Frank White first coined the term, ‘overview effect’ in 1987.
“There are no borders or boundaries on our planet,” said White, “except those we create in our minds or through human behaviors. All the ideas and concepts that divide us when we’re on the surface begin to fade from orbit and the moon. The result is a shift in worldview, and in identity.”
Captain Kirk Goes to Space!
Jeff Bezos, a big Star Trek fan, invited William Shatner to join him on Blue Origin’s second commercial space flight. How could the world’s most famous space captain pass up this opportunity? He accepted. And on October 13, 2021, at the age of 90, William Shatner became the oldest person to go to space.
Shatner was thrilled with the idea of “looking into the heavens…” In his book, Boldly Go, Shatner reflects on his experience with the ‘overview effect’ and his flood of emotions as he passed through the Karman line, sixty miles high, at the fringe of Earth’s atmosphere and outer space. It was the opposite of what he expected:
“I saw a cold, dark, black emptiness,” says Shatner. “It was unlike any blackness you can see or feel on Earth… I turned back toward the light of home. I could see… the white of the clouds and the blue of the sky. It was life. Nurturing, sustaining, life. Mother Earth. Gaia. And I was leaving her… I discovered that the beauty isn’t out there, it’s down here, with all of us. Leaving that behind made my connection to our tiny planet even more profound. It was among the strongest feelings of grief I have ever encountered. The contrast between the vicious coldness of space and the warm nurturing of Earth below filled me with overwhelming sadness.”
Do we really need to travel to space to grasp this 'overview effect' concept? For a moment, didn’t you imagine sitting there next to William Shatner, staring out the same window, feeling his grief of leaving Earth behind and his renewed sense of connection with our planet?
Astronomer Carl Sagan put things in perspective in his book, Pale Blue Dot, demonstrating the “folly of human conceits… and underscoring 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.”
“That’s here,” says Sagan, “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.”
Astronauts, space travelers, and astronomers remind us how breathtakingly beautiful and fragile our Earth is, and how grateful we should be to be here on this tiny blue speck in the universe.
“We have one gift,” says Shatner, “that other species perhaps do not: we are aware—not only of our insignificance, but the grandeur around us that makes us insignificant. That allows us perhaps a chance to rededicate ourselves to our planet, to each other, to life and love all around us. If we seize that chance.”
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