Judith Resnik: That’s true.
Bird: What’s it like, anyway?
Judith Resnik: It’s like being far away and close at the same time. Floating in a world that belongs only to you, but also belongs to everyone else.
from: We Dream of Space
written and illustrated by Erin Entrada Kelly
Greenwillow Books, 2020
It’s sometimes hard for me to see the big picture. Whether it’s deciding on the structure of a novel I’m working on or changing up my grocery shopping habits from daily trips to a weekly (or longer) plan, sometimes I get lost in the details of the trees, so to speak, instead of taking in the whole experience of the forest.
But, some people are naturally big picture thinkers.
Frank White is one. Mr. White is a Harvard graduate and Rhodes Scholar. He has a Master of Philosophy Degree in politics and, in 1987, coined the term “Overview Effect.” His book of the same name is in its 4th edition. He interviewes many astronauts and cosmonauts and reads their writings to help him describe the life-changing effect of viewing Earth from outer space or the moon. Simply put, the Overview Effect expresses a feeling of awe for our planet and an overwhelming desire to work for its protection. It becomes an almost universal mindset of those lucky enough to have experienced space travel.
Less than a year before White published the 1st edition of his book, the Challenger space shuttle exploded killing everyone on board, six astronauts and one teacher. People were questioning why we were putting so many resources, time and money as well as human life, into a program that experienced more than its share of tragic setbacks. As he tried to articulate an answer, White discovered Space Philosophy. He asked the fundamental question many were asking but no one was answering, “What is the purpose of space exploration?” His partial answer, “the Human Space Program will engage all of us as ‘Citizens of the Universe.’” That answer is more fully developed in his 2018 book, Cosma Hypothesis: Implications of the Overview Effect.
Most of us will not have the opportunity to rocket to the moon or Mars, or spend time exploring outer space. The question for me, then, is how to translate this experience for us, the everyday citizens of the universe. How to feel that awe, show empathy to our neighbors near and far, and become motivated to help Earth survive when our feet are firmly planted and gravity and inertia work to hold us here.
Even though it’s been around for over 30 years, I’ve noticed a spate of articles on the Overview Effect recently. Others must be on my wave length.
In its January/February 2021 publication, the Sierra Club quoted astronaut Ron Garan, “[Earth] looks like a living, breathing organism. But it also, at the same time, looks extremely fragile.” https://www.sierraclub.org/sierra/2021-1-january-february/books/big-picture-benjamin-grant-overview-timelapse
On June 3, 2020, Dave Mosher of Business Insider quoted NASA astronaut, Bob Behnken, “You see that it's a single planet with a shared atmosphere. It's our shared place in this universe.”
In the same article, Mosher tells his readers, “Psychologists say the effect isn't just a matter of idle curiosity, but perhaps an essential part of maintaining mental health on long-duration space missions.” https://www.businessinsider.com/astronauts-describe-overview-effect-seeing-earth-from-space-emotions-feelings-2020-6
Could a similar mind-set help us maintain our own mental health right here in our everyday lives? Help us spend a little more time looking outward to the universe and each other and a little less time looking inward to all those everyday problem out of our control?
And in August, 2020, https://spacecenter.org/photo-gallery-the-overview-effect/ posted a photo gallery on its blog. The images are spectacular, awe-inspiring, and worth the click.
You may not be as awed as an astronaut, you may not feel their overwhelming urge to protect our fragile home, or become more empathetic to friends and neighbors, but the change in perspective was enlightening for me!
Here’s what I wrote in this space on July 23, 2019 in a post about food waste:
“From the distance of outer space, it is easy to understand that boundaries between countries are drawn by people. It is easy to imagine oceans and jungles teaming with life. Harder, though, to remember that everything is finite.”
Everything is finite, though. And change is our only constant.
-—stay curious! (and keep looking up)
Happy Groundhog Day!!