The Overview Effect: Seeing Earth from the Outside

Writer Frank White coined the term “The Overview Effect” to describe the deep changes that astronauts experience once they see Earth from space. He said, “In 1968, Apollo 8 went to the Moon. They didn’t land, but they did circle the Moon; I was watching it on television and at a certain point one of the astronauts casually said: we are going to turn the camera around and show you the Earth. And he did. And that was the first time I had ever seen the planet hanging in space like that. And it was profound.”


Apollo 8: Earthrise. ©Nasa

Astronaut Edgar D. Mitchell said,

“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.”

But you don’t need to have gone into space to have obtained that awareness; some forward-thinking individuals divined the importance of our island earth from their armchairs. In 1948, British astrophysicist Fred Hoyle predicted the change of viewpoint when he said,

“Once a photograph of the Earth, taken from outside, is available, we shall, in an emotional sense, acquire an additional dimension… Once let the sheer isolation of the Earth become plain to every man, whatever his nationality or creed, and a new idea as powerful as any in history will be let loose.”

Subsequent to Apollo 11, Hoyle spoke at a NASA scientific banquet and said,

“You have noticed how, quite suddenly, everybody has become seriously concerned to protect the natural environment. It happened almost overnight, and one can understand how one can ask the question, ‘Where did this idea come from?’ You could say, of course, from biologists, from conservationists, from ecologists, but after all, they’ve really been saying these things for many years past, and previously they’ve never even got on base. Something new has happened to create a worldwide awareness of our planet as a unique and precious place. It seems to me more than a coincidence that this awareness should have happened at exactly the moment man took his first step into space.”

A recent short documentary, Overview, collects statements from many astronauts who have had this unique experience.

With his famous essay on “The Pale Blue Dot,” Carl Sagan captured the essence of this effect, without himself ever having been in space physically, although he probably plumbed the universe more deeply in his mind than the vast body of humanity.


“… Look again at that dot. That’s here. That’s home. That’s us. On it everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives. The aggregate of our joy and suffering, thousands of confident religions, ideologies, and economic doctrines, every hunter and forager, every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer of civilization, every king and peasant, every young couple in love, every mother and father, hopeful child, inventor and explorer, every teacher of morals, every corrupt politician, every “superstar,” every “supreme leader,” every saint and sinner in the history of our species lived there – on a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam.

The Earth is a very small stage in a vast cosmic arena. Think of the rivers of blood spilled by all those generals and emperors, so that, in glory and triumph, they could become the momentary masters of a fraction of a dot. Think of the endless cruelties visited by the inhabitants of one corner of this pixel on the scarcely distinguishable inhabitants of some other corner, how frequent their misunderstandings, how eager they are to kill one another, how fervent their hatreds. 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.

Our planet is a lonely speck in the great enveloping cosmic dark. In our obscurity, in all this vastness, there is no hint that help will come from elsewhere to save us from ourselves.

The Earth is the only world known so far to harbor life. There is nowhere else, at least in the near future, to which our species could migrate. Visit, yes. Settle, not yet. Like it or not, for the moment the Earth is where we make our stand.

It has been said that astronomy is a humbling and character building experience. There is perhaps no better demonstration of the folly of human conceits than this distant image of our tiny world. To me, it underscores our responsibility to deal more kindly with one another, and to preserve and cherish the pale blue dot, the only home we’ve ever known…”.
– Pale Blue Dot: A Vision of the Human Future in Space

Recently published at YouTube was a video of the final message of Wubbo Johannes Ockels (March 28, 1946 – May 18, 2014), who was a Dutch physicist and an astronaut of the European Space Agency (ESA), riding on Space Shuttle STS-61-A, and becoming the first Dutch citizen in space. After his astronaut career, Ockels was professor of Aerospace for Sustainable Engineering and Technology at the Delft University of Technology. On May 29, 2013 it was announced that Ockels had an aggressive form of kidney cancer (renal cell carcinoma) with a metastasis in his pleural cavity, and a life expectancy of one to two years. He died from complications of cancer on May 18, 2014, one day after making this video.

A transcript in English of Dr. Ockels’ remarks follows.

“We need some luck. Some other spacecraft. Something, because with what we have now, it’s going to be finished. As an astronaut, you feel excluded to a particular group of people. And those are the people in the majority. They are you, not being aware of the danger in which you live.

But now suppose I’m going to change all of you. Suppose I can transfer the experience which I have to you. Then you would go out and see the earth, and you would see the blue sky, not the blue sky which you see when you go outside; in space you see that you are the only one. The only planet. You have no spare. And so you have to take care of this one only planet.

Our earth has cancer. I have cancer too. And most people with cancer, they die. When in fact, everybody will die. If we make enough people to continuously survive mankind on the earth, we need to conserve our own planet, and you when you have the spirit and the insight and the attitude of an astronaut, you start to love the earth in a way that other people can’t. And if you really love something, you don’t want to lose it.

You know, my wife, she doesn’t want to lose me. She wants to do everything to let me stay alive. That’s the love and attitude which human kind should have to the earth. We do not have 50% of our roofs covered with solar. We do not have more than half of our cars electric. We certainly do not have a production in which there is a reasonable amount of material recycled. We don’t have all these things.

And then the question comes, ” OK, well what’s wrong?” Well, what’s wrong is the mindset. I’m sure, but I can’t claim it, but when I heard 18 April 2013 that I had a very bad cancer, damn kidney cancer, and also changed into a sarcomatoid, which means that, you know, which to slip through all kinds of things [by this he meant metastasis], and this, the doctor, beautiful doctor, and he said you have a fair amount of time. And of course each time I asked him, “what does ‘fair’ mean?” and then he was not very accurate, but he said, “Well, months, maybe a year.”

I got over a year, a good year, because I believed that the good future, and I believed, you know, you can do things with the power, with the mind power. We, we people coming from the same molecules out of one bloody strong star which bursted out, we who have developed over billions of years, life, life, is made by we, we humanity are so strong that we can save the earth – but we also can destroy it. Even a small thing does something.

The overwhelming burden of experience from those who have been outside the Earth’s atmosphere is that this little planet we live on is the only home we have, and we need to take care of it. Even if you happen to be a person of faith, taking the chiliastic view that we don’t need to worry about the Earth because God is going to come down and take care of everything strikes me as irresponsible, and unfair to future generations. Western Artist Stan Lynde captured my own sentiments decades ago:


While efforts are being made by forward-thinking individuals to reduce the damage we’re doing to our planet, there is still much to be done. We owe it to future generations to make a difference now. “Drill, baby, drill” just doesn’t do it for me.

The Old Wolf has spoken.


One response to “The Overview Effect: Seeing Earth from the Outside

  1. Pingback: It’s not nice to fool with Mother Nature. | Playing in the World Game

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