Come along on a journey with me. We start by sitting in a rocket preparing for liftoff. We can experience this vicariously through the astronauts who have gone before us. Once you arrive in space, gravity allows you to float unencumbered through the ship. Earth gazing is a pastime during a space flight that astronauts all savor. What experiences do humans feel in space and what could we learn from the astronauts?
All astronauts share their feelings of awe when they return home. From their cosmic vantage point, astronauts see and feel the cold, vastness of space. You can see the massive Milky Way floating behind our small planet. Our sun is just another star in a field of millions. Earth is our blue oasis in the middle of nothingness. Astronauts returning to earth from space flight gain a new way of thinking.
These new perspectives give reality a new twist. They experience a shift in cognition or a psychological phenomenon where one experiences a change in how their conscious mind and unconscious mind communicate with each other. This state of mental clarity, called the “overview effect,” occurs when you are flung so far away from Earth that you become totally overwhelmed and awed by the fragility and unity of life on our blue marble in space. Many astronauts come home and get actively involved in environmental issues.
Frank White is one such astronaut. He authored “The Overview Effect: Space Exploration and Human Evolution”. His book contains some space history, environmentalist philosophy, and starry-eyed futurism; it weaves White’s observations about the nature of systems with the future of space. www.overviewinstitute.org is the website of his foundation, and includes the overview video. It is meant to educate the masses.
The iconic “Earthrise” image (left) was snapped by astronaut Bill Anders.
Ron Garan, a space shuttle veteran talking in the video, relays some sights of note. “Watching the day change into night is just a line slowly moving across the planet.” Several sunrises occur in one space day because spaceships circle the earth many times more than the sun. In darkness, “thunderstorms and lightning can be seen flickering like fireflies. You can see the shooting stars go below us and watch the curtains of the Aurora Borealis dance.”
Lights from cities and towns are the only indication humans are there. “No boundaries are visible from space,” says Nicole Stott. Astronauts relay the sobering effect of experiencing our planet this way. They realize the unity and interconnectedness of life at home.
Our atmosphere is a thin veil that seems very fragile, like it is a living, breathing thing. From the surface, we see our blue skies, huge and clean. Thinking could we ever fill up the atmosphere with enough toxins to damage the environment? Astronauts want us to know we need to take care of our planet just like it takes care of us. Environmental impact of humans on earth are readily visible from space by clear cutting of forests, open pit mining, cities, and roads.
Carl Sagan, a popular science activist and physicist, referred to our planet as the pale blue dot in a book in 1994. He asked to have Voyager 1 look back at “home” and snap a picture before it leaves the solar system. On the photo, he points an arrow to a small speck of light in the distance. “That’s here. That’s home. That’s us.” “Our posturings, our imagined self-importance, the delusion that we have some privileged position in the Universe, are challenged by this point of pale light.” With this in mind, are we doing our best as a species to take care of ourselves and our planet?
~Billie Jo H.