The Overview Effect has been described as an overall sense of euphoria that arises from the acknowledgment of the interconnectedness of ourselves to the world we live in. This phenomenon has been experienced by astronauts as they enter orbit for the first time and see the pale blue dot that for so long had constituted their entire existence. When the Earth is viewed from space, many have reported a cognitive shift as our planet becomes a singular organism; worldly fixations such as border conflicts are disregarded and in its place is a sudden, yet visceral sensation of unity and identification towards Earth in its entirety, accompanied by an overriding feeling of ecstasy.
This phenomenon has been compared to religious experiences and states achieved through deep meditation.
In lieu of readily accessible space travel for civilians, The Blue Marble helps us achieve a similar state of global consciousness. It was posited by Fred Hoyle in 1948 that, “Once a photograph of the Earth, taken from outside, is available… a new idea as powerful as any in history will be let loose.”
The first such image was Earthrise, taken in 1968 by astronaut William Anders and has since started a tradition of startling images of our home planet. On December 7, 1972, 10:39 UTC – five hours and six minutes into the Apollo 17 mission – another photograph was taken, this time showing Earth in perfect illumination and in its entirety. The photo would later become one of the most widely distributed images in existence, perfectly capturing a moment of human and global cognisance.
The official NASA caption of The Blue Marble describes it thus:
This translunar coast photograph extends from the Mediterranean Sea area to the Antarctica south polar ice cap. This is the first time the Apollo trajectory made it possible to photograph the south polar ice cap. Note the heavy cloud cover in the Southern Hemisphere. Almost the entire coastline of Africa is clearly visible. The Arabian Peninsula can be seen at the northeastern edge of Africa. The large island off the coast of Africa is Madagascar. The Asian mainland is on the horizon toward the northeast.
What this caption belies – or perhaps describes in beautiful simplicity – is the sublime effects such a view has had on a number of orbiting astronauts. This has been documented throughout the history of space travel, most notably by Frank White in his 1987 book, The Overview Effect. It is in this work that the strange phenomenon has been described at its most eloquent—in the words of the people who have experienced it themselves.
“You identify with Houston and then you identify with Los Angeles and Phoenix and New Orleans,” says Russell ‘Rusty’ Scheickart, astronaut. “And the next thing you recognize in yourself is that you're identifying with North Africa. You look forward to it, you anticipate it, and there it is. And that whole process of what it is you identify with begins to shift. When you go around the Earth in an hour and half, you begin to recognize that your identity is with the whole thing. And that makes a change.”
This identification with the globe and its visceral affect on astronauts is mirrored in what is commonly attributed to the lasting appeal of The Blue Marble – it’s familiarity. It’s the photograph’s easily recognisable landmasses and features that strikes a sense of homeliness in ourselves. It was this image that shifted our collective image of the Earth from barely discernible coloured spheres to a beautiful signifier for home.
Many astronauts, after coming home from their trip to space, carry this formative experience with them throughout their lives and act upon it in positive ways. Rusty, for example, has helped found the B612 Foundation and is a founding member of the Association of Space Explorers. These groups are committed to the safety and wellbeing of the Earth as well as promoting sustainability awareness and education. Similarly, images such as The Blue Marble have been used as significant symbols for environmentalist and conservationist movements, its striking proclamation of our entire planet as a unified organism able to evoke a sense of protection amongst the majority of us. As space travel and even space tourism becomes a much more accessible and viable venture for us regular folk, it becomes an exciting prospect that what was started in our viewing of The Blue Marble can be actualised into full blown Overview; our progress as a coalescent human race can continue as soon as we begin to understand ourselves as such.
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