Ever wonder what it'd be like to travel into space? Free-floating in the shuttle, walk-hopping on the moon, and eating Dippin' Dot-style ice cream all seems swell and neat-o, but there's a particular psychological ramification of riding a shuttle into orbit that may be even more amazing than any space-age dairy dessert.
"The Overview Effect" is a term used to describe a fascinating cognitive shift experienced by numerous astronauts during spaceflight, specifically upon viewing Earth from above. According to many accounts, these astronauts are initially thrilled upon entering space, to have fulfilled a dream they've had since they were children. But when they look back at Earth, they become overwhelmed with a sense of awe. They spent their whole lives dreaming of leaving their home planet, and once they see it for the first time from a different vantage point, it becomes more beautiful and valuable to them than ever before. Everything is put into perspective, and they see it for what it truly is: one big, beautiful, dynamic living entity.
Shuttle/ISS astronaut Ron Garan said that, from above as opposed to on it, Earth "looks like a living, breathing organism, but it also, at the same time, looks extremely fragile." Being able to see the Earth as it truly is, and see ourselves for what we truly are, could potentially be the key in uniting humanity and working together to preserve ourselves and our planet.
Light covers the Earth
I don't think this is too far-fetched of a statement. After all, Star Trek takes place in a future utopia, where war amongst humans has been all but eradicated, and humans have evolved past the need for individual possessions. In this future, where space travel and exploration are widespread, the wars and squabbles of Earth suddenly seem ridiculous, and mankind sets aside their differences to work together to travel the cosmos. Who am I to question Star Trek's logic? For now, this ideal paradise is still just science fiction. But could this ever become our reality?
Shuttle astronaut Jeff Hoffman recalled the first time he saw our atmosphere from above, and described it as looking like nothing more than "a thin line, just barely hugging the surface of our planet." That "thin line," by the way, is the only thing that separates every last living thing on this planet from life and certain, horrifying, miserable extinction. Space is cruel and unyielding, and the fact that life is sustainable anywhere in it is extraordinary beyond compare. Seeing the Earth from space really hammers that home. Humanity has had to overcome so much just to exist here in the first place, and yet we continue our bullheaded march toward extinction by our own hands.
David Beaver, the co-founder of the Overview Institute, defines "The Overview Effect" as "the sudden recognition that we live on a planet, and all the implications that it brings to life on Earth." When experiencing the Overview Effect, astronauts claim that national borders tend to disappear, and they are filled with a sense of oneness and unity, and a desire to work together to protect this fragile blue dot hanging precariously in space. Frank White, author of "The Overview Effect," further elaborates that understanding the scope of these revelations are "key to our survival. We have to start acting as one species with one destiny. We are not going to survive if we don't do that."
Work together. Future utopia. I'm telling you, Star Trek was on to something. Make it so, people. Make it so.
Throughout our history, humanity has gone to war over trivial matters ranging from wanting more land to misunderstandings at dinner parties ("misunderstanding," "assassination," whatever). We've fought centuries' worth of bloody battles to lay claim to our little scrap of land on our little planet in our little solar system. What does it amount toin the grand scheme of things? Should we all be able to see the Earth from above "”to experience the Overview Effect for ourselves "”to see that we're just a tiny, insubstantial speck in nearly pitch-black infinity, perhaps it could put in perspective that these and all wars were meaningless. That there truly is no "us" vs. "them." There is only "us."
This psychological phenomenon is akin to the sensation you get when you leave high school. Do you remember high school? How important EVERYTHING was to you? Your very livelihood hinged on managing your reputation, popularity, and frantically covering up and making excuses for any social faux pas you may commit at some stupid party. (Assuming you were ever invited to parties. Not that I even wanted to go in the first place). All for what? So a hundred or so kids you arbitrarily grew up with will think you're cool?
Once you leave high school, whether by graduating or going on the run because a Terminator is after you, you start to see it for what it really was: temporary. You look back and feel more and more confused and embarrassed that you cared so much. It's the same sensation as the Overview Effect: When immersed in something, be it Earth or 11th grade, you have no perspective, and can't see the bigger picture. High school was our universe because it was all we knew, day in and day out. Events that seemed so life-shattering at the time prove to be inconsequential once perspective, experience and distance are applied. We could all use more perspective in our lives. It's enlightening. Traveling abroad opens your eyes to the world around you. Just ask your friend who spent the summer in London. You probably don't even need to; I'm sure they haven't shut up about it for the last seven years.
The thought of being able to travel space isn't only cool, it could potentially be imperative. The term "Spaceship Earth" is well-known to fans of Disney's Epcot. The term refers to the fact that Earth is like a spaceship, transporting living beings safely inside throughout space. High school is the same; just a vessel to carry us from childhood to adulthood. We must see these for what they are, so that we may stop fighting and killing each other before it's too late.
To quote from The Overview Institute: "From space, the astronauts tell us national boundaries vanish, the conflicts that divide us become less important, and the need to create a planetary society with the united will to protect this 'pale blue dot' becomes both obvious and imperative."
And maybe more of us can have this experience one day. The idea of commercial space travel is being kicked around more and more. Here's to hoping that it becomes reality, readily available, and ushers in a wonderful, utopian, non-robot-controlled or zombie-infested future. Maybe we can stop firing rockets in the Middle Eastand start firing rockets from there, up into the heavens, to showcase how senseless fighting over who owns what dirt really is. Maybe one day mankind can look back on all its conflicts the way many of us look back on our teenage years: we were dumb, awkward, recklessand, ultimately, going through growing pains. Like teens, we assumed we'd be here forever. But as we grow, we learn nothing lasts forever, and we have to be more careful with our home, and especially with ourselves.