The Overview Effect: Philosophy and Phenomenology

For this past semester, I created a one credit theory course on the overview effect to dive deeper into what it really meant, how someone experiences the phenomenon, and how it can be used to inspire activism.

Before I jump into the course content, I should give a little background. Frank White, a space philosopher and author, labeled this phenomenon as the overview effect. In his book The Overview Effect: Space Exploration and Human Evolution he described it as:

“…a cognitive shift in awareness reported by some astronauts and cosmonauts during spaceflight, often while viewing Earth from orbit, in transit between the Earth and the moon, or from the lunar surface. It refers to the experience of seeing firsthand the reality that the Earth is in space, a tiny, fragile ball of life, “hanging in the void,” shielded and nourished by a paper-thin atmosphere. The experience often transforms astronauts’ perspective on the planet and humanity’s place in the universe. Some common aspects of it are a feeling of awe for the planet, a profound understanding of the interconnection of all life, and a renewed sense of responsibility for taking care of the environment.”

Many astronauts speak about this phenomenon as an almost spiritual experience invoking questions about what they can do to help support global challenges. Former NASA astronaut Ron Garan takes his experience one step further with the concept of the orbital perspective. In his book The Orbital Perspective: Lessons in Seeing the Big Picture from a Journey of 71 Million Miles, he describes the orbital perspective as based on the overview effect experience with an added call to action. Adapting a new planetary perspectives, or consciousness, and getting involved in international activism. In watching Garan speak about this topic for years, he truly lives this philosophy and actively shares this message around the world.

As part of my master’s program, I am responsible for designing mentored theory courses that are customized to the topics I am interested in. For this Fall 2017 semester, I decided to create a one credit master’s theory course on the overview effect to dive deeper into what it really meant, how someone experiences the phenomenon, and how it can be used to inspire activism. Although it was a small course, I learned so much about the deeper aspects of the overview effect and how it could be applied here on Earth.

I wanted to share some of the readings/videos in case anyone else is interested in learning more about these topics. Keep in mind that this is only a sampling of the content on this phenomenon to get the wheels turning. Enjoy!

The Overview Effect

  • White, F. (2014). The overview effect: Space exploration and human evolution (3rd ed.). Reston, VA: American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics, Inc. doi:10.2514/4.103223
  • Suedfeld, P., Legkaia, K., Brcic, J. (2010). Changes in the hierarchy of value references associated with flying in space. Journal of Personality 78(5), 1411–1436.
  • Caston, D. (2014). Transformative experiences with nature: A phenomenological exploration (Doctoral dissertation). Retrieved from http://pqdtopen.proquest.com/doc/1550897621.html?FMT=AI

Planetary Consciousness

The Orbital Perspective and Global Action

  • Garan, R. (2015). The orbital perspective. Oakland, CA: Berrett-Koehler.
  • Fuller, R. B. (1969). Operating manual for spaceship earth. Baden, Germany: Lars Müller Publishers.
  • Sagan, C. (2011). Pale blue dot: A vision of the human future in space. New York, NY: Ballantine Books.
  • United Nations Association. (n.d.). Sustainable development goals. Retrieved from https://sustainabledevelopment.un.org/sdgs

“The film, available for free on Vimeo and YouTube, documents astronauts’ life-changing stories of seeing the Earth from the outside – a perspective-altering experience often described as the Overview Effect. Common features of the experience are a feeling of awe for the planet, a profound understanding of the interconnection of all life, and a renewed sense of responsibility for taking care of the environment.”
Video credit: Planetary Collective

Featured image credit: NASA

About the author

Erin Bonilla

Erin Bonilla is pursuing a master's degree in Adventure Education with a concentration in the psychosocial components of human spaceflight selection and training. She believes that through the development of a baseline approach to behavioral health within the astronaut selection process we can minimize long term psychosocial challenges and increase participant enjoyment.

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