An “Overview Effect” Open Letter

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That right there is Bruce McCandless. On February 7, 1984, he performed the first untethered spacewalk using the manned maneuvering unit, a nitrogen-powered jetpack that let him fly out there freely. He ventured out 320 feet from the space shuttle, where the famous photo was taken, then said, “It may have been a small step for Neil, but it’s a heck of a big leap for me.”

There are a couple of things I want to emphasize here. First, that is absolutely stunning. Second, he looks utterly powerless out there, floating helplessly, alone, between the massive blue orb looming beneath him and the yawning chasm of space threatening to swallow him whole. As beautiful as that picture is, though, we will never truly understand what Bruce saw in that moment.

There’s a name for the experience of seeing Earth from space and the new perspective that it brings. It’s called the Overview Effect. Astronaut Edgar Mitchell once said, “Something happens to you out there. 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.

Other astronauts describe it as euphoric, transformative, even spiritual — it makes them aware of the Earth without boundaries, nations or war, just a perfectly spherical ecosystem home to a diversity of interconnected life struggling to survive in the cosmos. It is nothing short of sublime.

Humans have had similar experiences since long before the space age. Those who claimed to have witnessed God, for example, have been left with an indescribable sense of awe. As religion came under assault from secularism during the Enlightenment, the German Romantics sought out the sublime in nature instead. They believed the experience of a staggering mountain or endless ocean could evoke the same feeling, and they tried to capture that in their art. Just look at this painting by Casper David Friedrich.

The tiny figure standing before the vast sea and sky prefigures the shot of Bruce above the Earth almost 200 years later. Both use the isolation of the person, his precarious stance in the face of a great expanse, and the infinity beyond that defies comprehension. The feeling is essentially unspeakable. You can’t just describe it or represent it through art. You have to see it yourself.

This gives me an idea. As we launch more and more people into space this decade, what if we send people with actual power into orbit? I’m talking about military leaders, generals, presidents, prime ministers, and anyone whose day-to-day decisions affect the rest of us. Who knows, maybe sending representatives from India and Pakistan, or North and South Korea, or Russia, China and the United States could give them a sense of our common humanity.

Freud once observed that two pivotal moments in our history humbled us before nature. The first was Copernicus’s discovery that the Earth is not the center of our solar system but “only a tiny speck in a world-system of a magnitude hardly conceivable.” The second was Darwin’s theory of evolution, which relegated humans to the status of animals among animals. Freud thought his psychological theory was the third, of course. What if the space age is humanity’s fourth moment? The Overview Effect is the next wound to our inflated egos. And nobody needs it more than those of us at the top.

We’ve been evolving from the beginning of civilization to a larger and larger perspective of life on the Earth. But the next natural evolution is understanding the life in space, that is, the fact that the Earth, as Buckminster Fuller used to famously say, is a spaceship. Spaceship Earth. We are in space already. It’s just that we haven’t brought that into our perspective as we live here on Earth. The Overview Effect is simply the sudden recognition that we live on a planet, and all the implications that it brings to life on Earth.
– Planetary Collective’s documentary Overview

It’s fitting that Bruce had his sun visor down during his spacewalk, hiding his face. It could have been anyone in there. Maybe he stands in for all of us, regardless of nation, race or ethnicity. The question is: can we see ourselves together, as one spaceship Earth, like he did?

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