Seeing the Earth from the outside Experiencing ‘The Overview Effect’

Retired NASA astronaut Nicole Stott (third from right) joined author Frank White (far left) and other panelists for a discussion on “The Overview Effect.” Photo by Amanda Martin

Imagine floating outside of the International Space Station, traveling at 4.7 miles per second and looking down at the Earth, seeing the coast of Africa and a half hour later seeing the Swiss Alps.

The sublime view of Earth from outer space is described as a humbling experience for many astronauts, and when they return often feel more a part of the world around them, a phenomenon author Frank White calls, “The Overview Effect.”

As the last installment of this year’s President’s Distinguished Lecture Series, Retired NASA Astronaut Nicole Stott joined White and other panelists on Wednesday for a screening and discussion of the short film, “The Overview Effect,” based on facts in a book of the same name written by White.

“Because of the colors that you see, the lights that see from up there,” said Stott, “though you are not seeing individual people, you definitely know when you look at the planet that it’s alive.”

Each speaker brought a unique perspective on why this view has the ability to impact the way we see our planet and the environment. Stott’s perspective was unique as the only panelist that experienced the Overview Effect.

Stott said that part of what the Overview Effect taught her is that being in space and exploring new frontiers “is who we are” as human beings. She said that human beings have been living in the International Space Station for 15 years now.

She emphasized that deeper space exploration is a reality, and moon settlement plans are not at all science fiction.

White focused on the idea that we are now able to see our place in the universe as if a mirror were put up to us through the Overview Effect.

“We are one species with one destiny right now, and for the first time, not even in a thousand years, or a billion years, but in the last 50 some odd years, we can actually see who we are and where we are.”

White made the distinction between knowing the Earth floats in the solar system against the backdrop of infinity, and seeing it. He pointed out that it is simply a change in perspective, but by seeing the planet from another, farther away place, it is easy to recognize its fragility among the chaos of the universe.

“We are already in space. We have always been in space, and we always will be in space. As Buffy Fuller said, ‘It’s a natural spaceship,’” he said.

“Truth is, everybody here is an astronaut on spaceship Earth. What this view of the Earth from space tells us is that we have to start acting like the crew of spaceship Earth, otherwise we are not going to have a very good journey through the universe. This is not just an idea, it’s also a call to action.”

Panelists Vandana Singh, associate physics and Earth sciences professor, and Rebecca Hawk, director of Community Education at Framingham State, discussed the negative history of colonization on Earth and posed questions about preventing these dark histories from repeating themselves in outer space.

“The reason I became a physicist, I believe, is because I spent a lot of time as a child looking up at the stars, and imaging and wondering if someone was looking back at me,” said Singh. “The very word colonization makes me wince. Because I wonder if we are blind to making similar mistakes out in space.”