The overview effect (also known as orbital perspective) blew my mind when I first learned about it.
Whenever I travel somewhere by plane, I’m amazed at how tiny the world looks from above.
As you go higher and higher, it seems like all our superficial (and human-made) issues, problems, and challenges slip away.
I’ve been searching for things related to air travel and being 10,000-30,000 feet above ground to see if there was a name for this concept. Turns out there is something known as the “break-off” phenomenon that was studied by jet aviators over 60 years ago.(3)
But, I realized I wasn’t thinking big—or high—enough.
Then I came across Carl Sagan’s famous reflections on the “pale blue dot” photo taken by the Voyager 1 space probe from 3.7 billion miles away.
“There are no borders or boundaries on our planet except those that we create in our minds or through human behaviors. All the ideas and concepts that divide us when we are on the surface begin to fade from orbit and the moon. The result is a shift in worldview, and in identity.” — Frank White
What is the Earth Overview Effect that Inspires Astronauts?
The overview effect is a cognitive shift in awareness reported by some astronauts during spaceflight, often while viewing the Earth from outer space.(1)
Many astronauts and pilots have experienced the overview effect over the years. The term “overview effect” was created by Frank White in the 1970s while flying in an airplane:
- “Anyone living in a space settlement … will always have an overview. They will see things that we know, but that we don’t experience, which is that the Earth is one system. We’re all part of that system, and there is a certain unity and coherence to it all.” — Frank White
While there are many great quotes from past astronauts, this one from Edgar Mitchell is a personal favorite:
- “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. From out there on the moon, international politics look so petty. You want to grab a politician by the scruff of the neck and drag him a quarter of a million miles out and say, ‘Look at that, you son of a bitch.'”— Edgar Mitchell, Apollo 14 astronaut
This 20-minute video showcases and describes the overview effect—it should be required watching for all of us on Earth.
The Overview Effect in Action Today
Ron Garan was a NASA astronaut who left his dream job to to share the unique perspective of this effect full time. Instead of the overview effect, he refers to it as the “orbital perspective.” He believes it can have “profound, positive effects on the trajectory of our global society and our world” and wants “to communicate the transformative power of acquiring a big picture and long-term perspective of our planet.”
- “As I looked down at the Earth — this stunning, fragile oasis, this island that has been given to us, and that has protected all life from the harshness of space — a sadness came over me, and I was hit in the gut with an undeniable, sobering contradiction. In spite of the overwhelming beauty of this scene, serious inequity exists on the apparent paradise we have been given. I couldn’t help thinking of the nearly one billion people who don’t have clean water to drink, the countless number who go to bed hungry every night, the social injustice, conflicts, and poverty that remain pervasive across the planet. Seeing Earth from this vantage point gave me a unique perspective — something I’ve come to call the orbital perspective. Part of this is the realization that we are all traveling together on the planet and that if we all looked at the world from that perspective we would see that nothing is impossible.”
- “Your definition of the word ‘home’ would rapidly expand to encompass the planet in its entirety, and for the first time, you might fully understand what it means to be one human family.”
Ron is taking the orbital perspective even further. He’s working on something called “World View” that will literally fly people into space to get this perspective for themselves.
- “A growing number of thinkers believe the Overview Effect heralds nothing less than the next ‘giant leap’ of human evolution. As breathtaking space-down views of our world seep into our cultural consciousness, people are waking up to the ‘Spaceship Earth’ analogy that casts our planet as a natural vessel with limited resources that must be steered responsibly by its crew.”(2)
Is it a coincidence that you move slowly in space? Maybe it’s lack of gravity, or maybe it’s forced slow living to experience the overview effect.