The Overview Effect Will Save Earth One Rich Space Tourist at a Time

A little known psychological phenomenon, alters how those who leave the planet think about it when they return.

NASA, International Space Station

When you orbit the Earth at 17,000 miles an hour, time accelerates and phenomena shrink. The sun rises every 90 minutes. Pacific Ocean clouds branch and narrow in stratospheric fractals. Over the Sahara, you can spot where the wind, squeezed through mountain gaps, carves thousand-mile-long sine curves in the sand.

“When you get up there and you first see the Earth, of course it’s beautiful,” says Richard Garriott, the sixth tourist to travel to the International Space Station and the creator of the massively successful Ultima gaming franchise. “But it’s not life-changingly beautiful.”

That’s a big admission from Garriott, who spent tens of millions of dollars, underwent risky surgery to slice out a liver malformation, and negotiated his way onto a Russian Soyuz rocket to follow in his astronaut father’s footsteps. Garriott recalls seeing tectonic seams, the cottony white exhalations of the Amazon, and the Mississippi bleeding into the Gulf of Mexico. But he doesn’t remember feeling anything truly exceptional until Texas swung past his pressure-treated cupola window.

“It was like being in a movie where they will show the actor in a hallway, and they dilate the camera back but they’ll zoom the lens in so it looks like a hallway is collapsing around the actor even though the actor doesn’t change size,” he says. “That was exactly the physical reaction I had.”

That could have been that and it would have been enough. But the view of familiar Austin, and the scraped landscape of the planet he’d just orbited 100 times, was more than a vantage and less than unique. Garriott was experiencing a cosmonautic phenomenon called “The Overview Effect,” a profound sense of kinship and magnanimity astronauts have been talking about since Apollo 8’s Earthrise. Garriott changed. When he got back to Earth, he sold his SUVs, bought solar panels, and ended up getting himself inducted into Austin’s Environmental Hall of Fame.

With the age of space tourism on the horizon and the age of income inequality already in full swing, the Overview Effect has never been more relevant or held more promise. Garriott thinks looking down changed him and that it will change others. He’s not alone. A vanguard of top-down thinkers are banking that the next populist movement may head in a surprising direction: straight up.

“If even a fraction of one percent of the human population had a similar experience,” says Garriott, “I think it would radically transform public opinion.”

A writer named Frank White popularized the term in his 1987 book The Overview Effect: Space Exploration and Human Evolution. To make his case that a different sort of shift in consciousness was looming, White combed through the records of a few hundred astronaut debriefings and interviewed several dozen spacefarers in person. Their testimonies jolted him toward a singular conclusion: Astronauts who saw Earth from space spoke about the planet differently when they returned.

They told him that, at 250 miles up, the atmosphere is paper thin. The Earth doesn’t fill your field of vision, but you can see in astonishing detail. Below you, nature — wind, erosion, forests, mountains — displays utter disregard for borders. Devoid of political fictions, the land itself renders conflict over it ridiculous. It’s not that the world is big, it’s that, within the context of space, it’s mind-bogglingly small. And it’s the emptiness of space that makes astronauts so willing, so eager, to make minor compromises, to install solar panels, ration water, and drive electric cars. They know the alternative is vast and silent.

Poetic as it might be, the Overview Effect didn’t catch on with the public. The first run of The Overview Effect sold less than 10 thousand copies. It was rarely cited by psychologists over the following two decades.

But times have changed and so has NASA’s relationship with YouTube, which may do more to change attitudes about the Overview Effect than scientific consensus ever could. The Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield, of zero-g Space Oddity fame, returned to his homeworld and used his YouTube fame to call for conservation, asking people to treat the planet with the same care as we do the delicate ISS. Dutch astronaut Wubbo Ockels, dying of renal cancer in a hospital bed, took to YouTube to extol mankind to do better: “In space you see you have the only one. The only planet. You have no spare.” Over 240,000 people saw his video, which is to say nothing of the millions that have watched satellite footage of the planet — or played around in Google Earth.

It’s no wonder then that George T. Whitesides, CEO of Virgin Galactic, a company that spent years almost scrupulously avoiding broaching the subject of psychological fallout from space travel, started extolling the Overview Effect more and more this year. It’s beginning to sound legitimate.

Using new tools to put the Overview Effect on the clinical side of the scientific-spiritual divide is a key mission of the Overview Institute, a seven-year-old organization that now counts both Whitesides and Garriott as members. It hasn’t been easy, largely because of the pre-packaged narratives about space travel. A few of the first astronauts to describe the Overview Effect framed it in terms of a metaphysical epiphany. “These guys were having some kind of profound experience, says David Beaver, a founding member of the Overview Institute. Those pull quotes became color for journalists eager to treat American astronauts as relatable heroes and less eager to address the fact that they were, on some level, lab rats. As for the astronauts, they were coming out of the military or MIT or both. They weren’t adept at talking about their feelings.

Early metaphysical chatter made the Overview Effect a tough sell among the science-minded. “Could you imagine going before Congress or a venture capitalist and saying space can induce a spiritual experience?” Beaver asks.

White and Beaver have been active recruiters. Today, the Insititute’s membership includes Space Frontier Foundation founder Rick Tumlinson, and University of Pennsylvania neuroscientist Dr. Andrew Newberg. Newberg is a pioneer in the realm of neurotheology, using brain imaging techniques to assess cerebral activity during prayer and meditation. Neurology can’t prove a higher power exists, of course, but Newberg has shown that our brains act differently when we’re thinking spiritually.

“I don’t want to get mystical on this,” Beaver says, adding that the personal change he’s describing is actually fairly minor, nothing more or less than “the picture of the world in your head.” He thinks that as the number of people with a clear image of their homeworld grows, that the world will benefit. Beaver wants people to go to space.

And then, critically, he wants them to come back.

For the Overview Effect to affect the masses, more people will have to see the world from on high. White invokes the 20-percent marker of innovation theory, which states that a change to a fifth of a population ripples into the whole. But that is, frankly, unrealistic. More than 1,400,000,000 people are not going to space — at least not anytime soon. That’s where Ryan Holmes comes in.

The founder of SpaceVr, Holmes plans to take the view from the International Space Station and put it inside your future Oculus Rift. His more immediate goal is to raise $100,000 on Kickstarter to send a 360-degree VR camera up with the ISS. The expenses are very real — the kit must withstand a null-g kick from an astronaut — and so is his humanitarian ambition. He wants to offer a cheaper alternative to Garriott’s Space Adventures experience, which aims to offer the genuine experience for a over a million dollars.

What makes the view from SpaceVr different from Google Earth? It’s a bit tougher to transverse Google Earth at 5 miles a second. And virtual reality is the most immersive visual technology we’ve got: A VR moon landing simulator, for instance, brought this space-loving dad to tears. “The immersive feeling of it definitely changes the experience,” Holmes says. “Your brain thinks you were there.”

Fittingly, it was a documentary produced by the Overview Institute that inspired Holmes to create SpaceVR. The lasting effects of space travel — the shift in worldview — is what he wants to capture. “If we could bring that to the world,” he says, “it would be a better place to live.”

But virtual reality can get us only so far. White believes that zero-gravity plays a role in the euphoric feelings of the Overview Effect. And the thing about Garriott’s world-shifting view of Texas was that it came in planet-sized context. “The problem with the Overview Effect is you need all those pieces,” Garriott says, referring to the context that served as a preamble to his vision of Austin. You need to see the quilts of farmland, the jungles slashed and burned, humanity stamped across the face of the world as if stuck by an all-powerful philatelist. In that view, suborbital flights — which offer weightlessness but don’t give you the same vantage as the ISS — could only work in tandem with VR and vice versa.

Would Richard Garriott have become environmentally active if he hadn’t gone to space in a Soyuz TMA-13? He acknowledges that it’s possible, but he doesn’t think so. “There’s no question, I would not have nearly been so inspired,” he says, adding, “I would imagine.”

The bit of doubt remains, but that seed of distrust may further illustrate a consistency of experience. White and Beaver noted similar sentiments among other astronauts surprised by their newfound activism. Astronauts have been standing behind environmental and humanitarian causes since John Glenn became a senator, but the results of the efforts of this small community can be hard to see. Having a rocket doesn’t mean having a soap box as well.

But the next generation of space travelers won’t have publicity problems. Justin Bieber, Brad Pitt, and Katy Perry are rumored to be among the 700 or so people signed up to fly with Virgin Galactic. The power of an environmentally minded celebrity can’t be underestimated — Leonardo DiCaprio’s foundation raised $40 million so far in 2015 to protect rare ecosystems and endangered species. Yao Ming almost single-handedly killed the cachet of shark fin soup in China.

No, you won’t be seeing a lot of basketball players headed to space — it’s a logistical nightmare — but the extremely upwardly mobile will definitely be major players in other fields. They will (not to put too fine a point on it) be rich. Virgin plans to sell six hours for about $250,000, which significantly limits their client pool. Garriott’s wife Laetitia, the president of Escape Dynamics, is hard at work devising a way to to work with reusable rockets to bring the price point on a full orbital experience beneath $10 million. That’s considered extremely low.

The number of potential space tourists — people with astronomical disposable income or personal wealth — is actually growing. As has been bemoaned by many a Democratic candidate, the top one percent is rapidly distancing itself from the rest of the country. Whether or not you believe this concentrated wealth is a social problem, it does put a significant onus on a small proportion of the population to show leadership through spending. And that small percentage isn’t doing that in a meaningful way. The wealthiest Americans currently donate proportionally less of their income to charity and send many of the biggest donations to private universities like Harvard. If trends continue — and that’s what trends are supposed to do — the richest one percent could own half the world’s wealth as soon as next year. What that gives us is a subclass of demigods.

What will they see when they look down from on high?

The answer to that question comes courtesy of Nobel Prize-winning economist Joseph Stiglitz, who noted in 2013 that economic inequality and environmental sustainability are inextricably linked. And, yes, that linkage is easy to spot from space.

Global warming stands to hit the poorest nations hardest, particularly those located around the tropics. Even within countries, pollution disproportionately impacts lower-income communities; a 2012 study found that a 10 percent increase in the proportion of unemployed individuals in a population was linked to 20 percent higher exposure of carbon and vanadium particulate matter. Clouds of carbon and eroding deltas spin by under the all-seeing eyes of space stations. The link between class and land becomes absolutely clear and so does this truth: To help the Earth is to help the people who live on it.

“Corporate and entrepreneurial leaders can move that bar in a generally good direction,” says Garriott. “I would expect.”

If you were to peel off your skull to reveal your brain’s cerebral cortex, you’d have to chip away at a good 30 to 40 percent of your head to expose the area involved with visual processing. We are visual creatures. And the power of the Overview Effect would seem to be derived from its being fundamentally visual as well. The fact that looking down can be an emotional experience may simply disguise the fact that it’s an intellectual one: The view allows the simple image-oriented brain to grasp the concept of “Earth.”

It may not be important that the man on the street grasp our planet’s puniness or delicacy, but it is important that leaders — both elected and not — do. And this may strike the most astonishing possibility the Overview Effect presents: The chance to weaponize space as an instrument of conscience. What would Donald Trump think of seeing one of his desert-bound golf courses from 250 miles up? What would Jeb Bush think of climate change looking at the Florida coast? What would the Pope make of the voyage?

When the first astronauts returned from space, humanity was eager to know what they had learned about the stars. Perhaps we should have been asking what they learned about Earth. Perhaps there’s still a chance to share those lessons with people like Garriott, people with the means to act on a global scale.

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