The Overview Effect, this massive cognitive shift that was first codified in the late Eighties by space writer Frank White, hits different astronauts in remarkably distinct ways. Almost everyone who sees Earth from space can’t help but marvel at its singular beauty and fragility, and some astronauts liken it almost to a religious experience. National borders and human conflicts all just seem so petty in the wake of this new, profound connection with the planet.
“It’s like looking at the Sistine Chapel,” Massimino continues. “You see lots of pictures and VR, but you’re there, and all of the sudden it hits you.”
Now, you can visit the Sistine Chapel without too much effort, so you don’t have to just rely on pictures. But space? Unless you’re an astronaut, pictures of Earth from above are all we have, and One Strange Rock does its best to emulate that feeling.
The series tries to recreate this zoomed-out feeling, somewhat paradoxically, by zooming in to tell tales about just how miraculous Earth is. Each episode focuses on a theme and puts a spotlight on one astronaut in particular, though the other seven make appearances. The premiere, featuring Hadfield, is about oxygen. Breathtaking photography takes viewers to a salty desert in East Africa and follows a dust storm that blows tons of sand across the Atlantic Ocean before raining down on the Amazon. That sand fertilizes the jungle, but far from being “the lungs of the Earth,” the Amazon’s wildlife use up every last breath the lush foliage generates. A lot of the air we’re breathing, Hadfield explains, comes from countless numbers of microscopic algae known as diatoms, which feast on the minerals created by erosion from Amazon rains. And, to bring it all full circle, that African desert our journey started in was once a seabed, and the sand is, in part, generations of diatom corpses that sank to the bottom ages ago.
This is all well and good, but ultimately, One Strange Rock is a TV show. Can it come close to emulating the rare experience of actually seeing Earth from space? Curiously, for a sweeping nature documentary, One Strange Rock doesn’t end with a conservationist call to arms, and Aronofsky notes that the words “climate change” aren’t even uttered. All One Strange Rock wants to do is to get people to see their world from a slightly different perspective, hoping the new view will foster a new appreciation. What happens after the credits roll isn’t their concern.
One Strange Rock is a moving documentary, but is it “seeing Earth from space” moving? Perhaps then it’s best to ask the astronauts, the people who actually felt the Overview Effect, if One Strange Rock gives them even a fraction of that.
“I think it does, and more, actually,” Nicole Stott tells Inverse. “I was learning things and associating it with the experience I had and saying ‘oh my gosh, that explains it even more. That connects me even more.’ Awe and wonder are two words that come up a lot when you think about looking at Earth from space, but I felt that every minute I was watching.”
Mike Massimino, who described Earth from space as “a paradise,” isn’t quite as sure anything can truly convey that feeling. “It’s near impossible, because it’s so compelling and so beautiful, and we only have words generally to communicate with,” he says, before praising One Strange Rock’s cinematography and narrative — up to a point.
“The footage now, the cameras are getting better and better, and the footage in this show [especially]. But, being there and being part of that experience, I think everybody’s got to get to space,” Massimino says.
Massimino’s probably right, though I’ll have to take his word for it, since I’ve never been to space. And, if I can’t watch the Earth from 240 miles up above through the window of the ISS, a gorgeous TV show will have to do.
One Strange Rock premieres on March 26 at 10 p.m. Eastern.