Seeing Earth From Space Will Change You

When he first returned from space, William Shatner was overcome with emotion. The actor, then 90 years old, stood in the dusty grass of the West Texas desert, where the spacecraft had landed. It was October 2021. Nearby, Jeff Bezos, the billionaire who had invited Shatner to ride on a Blue Origin rocket, whooped and popped a bottle of champagne, but Shatner hardly seemed to notice. With tears falling down his cheeks, he described what he had witnessed, his tone hushed. “What you have given me is the most profound experience I can imagine,” Shatner told Bezos. “It’s extraordinary. Extraordinary. I hope I never recover from this.” The man who had played Captain Kirk was so moved by the journey that his post-touchdown remarks ran longer than the three minutes he’d actually spent in space.

Shatner appeared to be basking in a phenomenon that many professional astronauts have described: the overview effect. These travelers saw Earth as a gleaming planet suspended in inky darkness, an oasis of life in the silent void, and it filled them with awe. “No one could be briefed well enough to be completely prepared for the astonishing view that I got,” Alan Shepard, the first American in space, wrote in 1962, after he’d made the same trip that Shatner later took.

[Read: The cost of William Shatner’s ‘most profound experience’]

Beholding the silky clouds below, the continents and the seas, many astronauts have seen their home planet—and humankind’s relationship to it—in a profoundly new light. “It becomes so small and so fragile, and such a precious little spot in that universe that you can block out with your thumb,” Russell “Rusty” Schweickart, who spent 10 days orbiting Earth on the Apollo 9 mission, said in a 1974 speech.

Michael Collins, the Apollo 11 astronaut who flew around the moon, believed that if world leaders could experience the overview effect, intractable political differences might be resolved. “That all-important border would be invisible, that noisy argument suddenly silenced,” Collins wrote in his memoir, Carrying the Fire.

Gene Cernan, one of just a dozen people to have walked on the lunar surface, desperately wanted the rest of humanity to see what he had seen. “If only everyone could relate to the beauty and the purposefulness of it,” he said in 1985. “It wouldn’t bring a utopia to this planet for people to understand it all, but it might make a difference.”

More than three decades later, spaceflight is not yet available to everyone, not even close. Unlike in Cernan’s era, however, when such trips were made exclusively by professional astronauts, today a seat on a spacecraft is available in a growing tourism industry, at least for those who can afford the astronomical fare. Blue Origin has carried 31 people to the edge of space and back since the summer of 2021. Elon Musk’s SpaceX has launched seven space tourists all the way into orbit; three of them spent more than two weeks living on the International Space Station. The next group of SpaceX tourists will exit their capsule and go on a little spacewalk.

As commercial space travel becomes less expensive and more common, we can test Cernan’s proposition that if enough people experience the overview effect, life back on Earth could be meaningfully improved. But we might also find that a more varied group of travelers describes the experience in different terms than the astronauts who went before them. What will a new generation of voyagers see when they regard their home from space?

Frank White coined the term overview effect in the early ’80s while he was flying over Earth—not in space, though high up enough to have a nice view, on a cross-country flight. White was affiliated with the Space Studies Institute, a nonprofit founded by the Princeton physicist Gerard K. O’Neill, who believed that people would one day live inside space stations that replicated the conditions of Earth. (A young Bezos attended O’Neill’s lectures as a student; he founded Blue Origin to turn the theory into reality.) As White flew west from the East Coast, over plains, mountains, and deserts, an idea occurred to him: People living in space would always have this view. As he later wrote, “They will be able to see how everything is related, that what appears to be ‘the world’ to people on Earth is merely a small planet in space.”

[Read: The tourism era of American spaceflight is really, truly here]

Seeking evidence for his theory, White started interviewing astronauts as proxies for those future space dwellers. By the early ’80s, dozens of astronauts had traveled into space. Many had described their experiences in interviews and memoirs, but no one had sat them down and asked probing questions about the meaning of what they’d witnessed.

Not everyone had been changed by what they saw, White learned. But among those who were, White found common themes, which he described in The Overview Effect, first published in 1987. The astronauts’ sense of national belonging faded away, replaced by one of connection with their fellow human beings. They also felt a new bond with their home planet, the only known source of life in an otherwise forbidding universe. The Earth, with its wispy atmosphere, looked delicate, in need of care.

This version of the overview effect has taken hold in the public imagination, reinforced over the years by books and documentaries about the American space program. In this telling, the effect can seem like a special gesture bestowed by the cosmos upon anyone brave enough to venture beyond Earth.

photo of astronaut inside cockpit looking out window with bright sunlight on his face
Walter Schirra peers into space during the Apollo 7 mission, October 1968. (Courtesy of NASA)

But as Jordan Bimm, a historian of space exploration at the University of Chicago, has written, the overview effect is as much a cultural phenomenon as a celestial one. It is a human narrative, its themes shaped by a variety of earthly circumstances. The overview effect arose when the NASA astronaut corps was rigorously homogeneous: white males with engineering degrees and military experience. These men were a product of their training and their time. Spaceflight was a dangerous new frontier that required mental as well as physical fortitude—the right stuff.

The imperative to always demonstrate the right stuff shaped the language that astronauts used to describe their experiences in space. As Patricia Santy, a longtime psychiatrist at NASA’s Johnson Space Center, in Houston, wrote in 1994, “Expression of emotions such as sadness or fear is considered a weakness.” If the sight of Earth marooned in darkness inspired such feelings in the heart of an astronaut, he was unlikely to admit it, lest he jeopardize his shot at another mission.

To capture their experience of the sublime, many astronauts spoke in explicitly religious terms. Cernan, for example, said, “You only see the boundaries of nature from there, boundaries God created.” This reflects their uniformly Christian backgrounds, though also the Cold War backdrop of America’s early space missions. “There’s this sense of us versus them ... We’re not the godless Communists,” Deana Weibel, a cultural anthropologist at Grand Valley State University, in Michigan, told me. “We’re the ones that have God on our side.” Early Soviet cosmonauts remarked on the beauty of Earth from space, but they didn’t attribute it to a higher power.

The specter of nuclear war also hung over the early space missions. At a time when two superpowers were engaged in globe-spanning brinkmanship, regarding a borderless world was particularly startling. For some, the sight inspired hope; Schweickart found himself wishing he could take a person from “each side” and demand of them: “Look at it from this perspective! Look at that! What’s important?”

Others, however, saw not the promise of peace but intimations of destruction. Weibel, who conducts anonymous interviews of astronauts for her research, said that one told her he took one look out the window of the space shuttle and “became absolutely convinced we would kill ourselves off between 500 and 1,000 years from now.” He never said so publicly.

The SpaceX capsule that transports professional astronauts to the International Space Station is sleek and futuristic. Before its first tourist mission, the company added a big, bubble-shaped glass window. The cupola offers tourists sweeping, unobstructed views of the cosmos, including the planet they’ve left behind. It turns the overview effect into an amenity.

What have the early tourists thought? Many have returned with testimonials resembling the traditional accounts. It’s “very emotional, and it changes you,” Sharon Hagle, a philanthropist who flew with Blue Origin, told me. “You see the curvature [of the Earth], and you see the cloud formation, and the reality of how tiny the world is.”

Others have offered new lines of thought. Sian Proctor, a geoscientist and an artist who spent several days orbiting Earth in 2021, told me that although she expected to feel the oft-described sense of connectedness with the planet, what captivated her the most was Earth’s sheer luminosity. “To be up there and being bathed in Earth light while floating in space, there’s nothing better,” she said. Proctor is only the fourth Black American woman to go to space. She painted Earth while in orbit, depicting the planet’s natural wonders as flowing from the mind of a creator figure she called AfroGaia.

Hayley Arceneaux, a physician assistant who flew with Proctor, saw the planet in the context of her profession, and the challenge of distributing care across human-drawn borders. “It felt unifying, but it also made me think of healthcare disparities in a different way. How can someone born on that side of the globe have a completely different prognosis from someone born over here?” she wrote in a recent memoir. “I could see the nations all at once, and it felt more unfair than ever, the ugliness that existed within all of that beauty.”

Some tourists have described the experience in tones that fall well short of the lofty anecdotes of old. Wally Funk is a longtime aviator who flew alongside Bezos in the summer of 2021. “I thought I was going to see the world,” she said afterward, “but we weren’t quite high enough.”

Jared Isaacman, a billionaire who chartered a SpaceX trip into orbit for himself and three others, has said he preferred looking at the moon rising out of the darkness. Our home, he said, “looked like what you thought it would look like—it’s that big glowing blue ball of Earth.” What had been spectacularly new for Alan Shepard has now become familiar, expected. As space tourism grows, an Instagram snap of the glowing blue ball might become as banal as a selfie by the infinity pool.

As for Shatner, though he hit some familiar notes when he first touched down, he has also described his experience in terms far darker than any astronaut ever has, at least in public. In a recently published memoir, he wrote that he felt “a crushing, overwhelming sadness” when looking down on Earth.

I called Shatner to ask him how his understanding of the experience has evolved. “It took me a couple of hours sitting by myself to understand that what I was feeling was grief, and the grief was for the Earth,” he told me. He had expected to delight in the wonder of the view; instead, it reminded him of all the ways that Earth is under threat, primarily from climate change. That grief, he said, is still with him. “I could tear up just talking to you about it.”

There are days when he can muster more optimism, he told me, but he’d just read an article about the volume of plastic particles in the environment. “You’ve caught me in a moment of nonhope.”

As powerful as it can be, the overview effect fades. Eventually, gravity and worldly responsibilities restore their hold.

“Life gets in the way,” Doug Hurley, a retired NASA astronaut, told me. “Just like most Americans, we gotta work, we gotta earn money, we gotta take care of our families.” Hurley’s wife, Karen Nyberg, is also an astronaut. I asked her whether the couple have had deep conversations about how the view of Earth changed them. She said they probably did, but couldn’t recall a specific conversation.

Katya Echazarreta, who flew on Blue Origin in 2022, told me she feels a responsibility to share her experience of the overview effect, even as its immediacy wanes. “I come from a very underrepresented background,” Echazarreta, the first Mexican American in space, said. “The hardest part has actually been answering the same question thousands and thousands of times while keeping that excitement.”

Chris Cassidy, a retired NASA astronaut who flew on the shuttles, witnessed flames billowing out from the Amazon rain forest. He told me the sight made the threat of climate change more urgent to him, and in turn made him “a better occupant of Earth.” But the view didn’t “fundamentally change” him. “It didn’t make me a better dad or a better friend or a better husband,” he said.

Michael Collins once said that “the best crew for the Apollo mission would be a philosopher, a priest, and a poet. Unfortunately, they would kill themselves trying to fly the spacecraft.” Today, such a trio could easily make the voyage to space, if someone was willing to foot the bill. But each of them might come back with different ideas of what it had meant to enjoy a view of Earth once reserved for the gods. Awe, despair, a shrug.

Spaceflight scrambles the senses, whether you’re a professional or a tourist. Human beings evolved to live on Earth, not dangle over it; in a sense, people who go to space witness something they weren’t meant to see. The only universal aspect of the experience may be its ineffability. In 1962, Walter Schirra radioed from Earth orbit down to John Glenn, who had himself circuited the planet earlier that year: “It’s kind of hard to describe all this, isn’t it, John?”

This article appears in the January/February 2023 print edition with the headline “Seeing Earth From Space Will Change You.” When you buy a book using a link on this page, we receive a commission. Thank you for supporting The Atlantic.

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