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Red Sea image
Views of the Earth from space, such as this recent image of the Red Sea taken from the International Space Station, have given many astronauts a very different perspective of their home planet. (credit: NASA)

The Overview Effect at 25

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One of the most popular pastimes in spaceflight is to simply look out the window at the Earth below. Astronauts on the International Space Station, the now-retired Space Shuttle, and other vehicles often talked about spending their free time gazing at the planet as they sped above it. Some have taken advantage of the view to create stunning photos and videos (see, for example, “Review: Lights of Mankind”, The Space Review, December 12, 2011). But can that view—that unique perspective—change us?

As more and more people have flown, I think that the reality of the experience has become more acceptable to people and more accepted,” White said of the Overview Effect.

That was the proposition of a book published 25 years ago last month, titled The Overview Effect. In it, author Frank White argued that people who have flown in space experience a change in perception about the Earth by viewing it from this novel perspective, one that emphasized a more global view, including a greater appreciation of the environment. “You see how diminutive your life and concerns are compared to other things in the universe,” said former astronaut Ed Gibson. White called this cognitive shift the “Overview Effect.”

The idea for the Overview Effect came to White during the late 1970s, when he was involved in the space settlement movement of that era. “I was flying cross-country in the late ’70s, and I was thinking a lot about space settlements, and what it would be like to live off the planet,” he recalled in a recent phone interview. “It was during the cross-country flight that I was looking down on the Earth and just had this flash of insight: people living in a space settlement would always have an overview. They would see the interconnectedness of the planet and they would understand things experientially that we understand intellectually.”

The term “Overview Effect” came into his mind at the time, and he said he was driven to see if there was, in fact, such an experience. “I thought, ‘I really need to go interview astronauts and see if there is something called the Overview Effect,’” he recalled. That set him on the path to writing the book, published in November 1987; he said he first publicly used the term two years earlier, in a poster session at a 1985 Space Studies Institute conference.

Since the book’s publication, the space community, including those who have been in space, has gradually accept the idea of the Overview Effect. “As more and more people have flown, I think that the reality of the experience has become more acceptable to people and more accepted,” White said. “The experience was happening before I called it the Overview Effect, but I do think that giving it a name has made it easier for people to grasp the idea and begin to understand its meaning better.”

White has interviewed two dozen astronauts to date, with more planned as he works on a third edition of the book, to be published in about a year by AIAA. (The book’s second edition, also published by AIAA, came out in 1998.) Almost all of them have said they’ve experienced something like the Overview Effect while in space, to varying degrees. “The experience, or the interpretation of the experience, does vary. There are different levels of intensity,” he said. “There are different aspects of the experience that people talk about more or less.”

The relatively small sample size has made it difficult for him to identify any trends in how the experience is perceived, but he said he has noticed a greater awareness of it among astronauts. “As people have gone into space more recently, there has been more of a sense that they expect to have that experience,” he said. “They heard about it from others, so they’re not quite as surprised.”

“As people have gone into space more recently, there has been more of a sense that they expect to have that experience,” White said. “They heard about it from others, so they’re not quite as surprised.”

That acceptance of the Overview Effect, and even now an anticipation of it, has been a slow process. “There were times during the 25 years from publication until today where I really just thought that the idea hadn’t taken off at all,” White said. It wasn’t until he attended a 2007 symposium on the Overview Effect, organized by virtual reality pioneer David Beaver, that he said he really understood its impact. “That was the point where I realized that the book really did affect a lot of people, I just didn’t know it.” That symposium led to the creation in the following May of the Overview Institute, an organization designed to research and communicate the Overview Effect to broader audiences.

Communicating the Overview Effect has been a challenge, he admitted. “My point wasn’t to write a book. My whole point was to share this message of the astronauts,” he said. In 1987 that meant writing a book, but today there are other mechanisms for doing so, thanks in large part to the Internet and other advances in technology. White said Doug Trumbull, a filmmaker best known for his special effects work on such science fiction movies as 2001 and a founding member of the Overview Institute, is studying ways to use modern filmmaking technology to create an “immersive experience” that would give people on Earth a taste of the Overview Effect.

A somewhat more conventional approach is a short documentary about the Overview Effect called Overview, produced by a group called the Planetary Collective. The 20-minute film features interviews with White as well as with several astronauts, including Edgar Mitchell, Jeff Hoffman, Ron Garan, and Nicole Stott. The film’s world premiere will be this Friday at Harvard University, followed by a panel featuring White, Trumbull, Hoffman, and Garan; both the film and the panel will be livestreamed. White said the film will be available for viewing via the Internet not long after that premiere.

“One of the interesting things to me is to see just how an idea expands,” White said. “It’s very interesting to me that it’s taken this long to get to the point where we do have a 20-minute film that reflects the ideas in the book pretty well. I think we’re going to see that there will be many other ways that people are going to try and communicate this idea.”

White said that, among other approaches, he’s working with a European company called Space Synapse to develop approaches to communicating the Overview Effect in venues like planetariums. He’s also taken a slightly different tack on the concept in a recent ebook, The New Camelot Volume One: Camelot and the Overview Effect. In it, he reexamines the Camelot myth associated with the presidency of John F. Kennedy. If the Kennedy Administration was Camelot, does that make the Apollo-era astronauts the Knights of the Round Table? And, if so, what was the Holy Grail they were seeking? It was, perhaps, White argues, something like the Overview Effect, and the sense of unity it provided in a troubled era.

“The ideal for me would be to go to the space station, but I don’t think that’s in the cards, unless I can sell a lot more books!”

The best way to communicate the Overview Effect, though, may be to experience it, which is why White said he’s looking forward to the development of space tourism ventures like Virgin Galactic that will offer the spaceflight experience to a wider portion of the general public. But is a brief suborbital flight, where people spend only a few minutes in space, enough to allow people to experience the Overview Effect? White thinks that is, citing what Alan Shepard recalled from his suborbital Mercury spaceflight in 1961. “If you read his own accounts of that experience, it was pretty powerful,” he said.

White also mentioned the efforts by a Spanish company, Bloon, to provide tourist flights on high-altitude balloons. While not strictly spaceflight—the balloons will travel only about a third of the way to the 100-kilometer altitude widely considered the boundary of space—the flight will still provide the experience of viewing the Earth from a high altitude, one that will last for several hours as opposed to a few minutes. “It seems to me that those folks are going to have a pretty strong experience of the Overview Effect,” he said.

White has written extensively about the Overview Effect, but hasn’t been in space to experience it—at least, not yet. “I’m certainly hoping that that is something I’ll be able to do,” he said, provided he can find the money to pay for some kind of spaceflight. “The ideal for me would be to go to the space station, but I don’t think that’s in the cards, unless I can sell a lot more books!”

“My purpose is not so much to have the experience myself but to disseminate it based on others who are having it,” he said. “But, obviously, having heard so much about it and thought so much about it, it would be fantastic for me to be able to go myself.”