The Overview Effect and What It Can Do

The Overview Effect
ISS024-E-014263 (11 Sept. 2010) — NASA astronaut Tracy Caldwell Dyson, Expedition 24 flight engineer, looks through a window in the Cupola of the International Space Station. A blue and white part of Earth and the blackness of space are visible through the windows.

The International Space Station (ISS) has now been actively supporting humans in space for 21 years. Since November 2, 2000, people have continuously resided in that small laboratory looking down on the rest of us, watching sunrises and sunsets sixteen times a day from a different perspective. The experience can be a reminder of how small we are. Astronauts have described a feeling that has been called “the overview effect.”

The overview effect is a change in perspective that many people experience when looking down on Earth from space. We are accustomed to seeing a limited view of our surroundings. However, when a person’s horizon opens to see the circle of the Earth (Isaiah 40:22) hanging on nothing (Job 26:7) surrounded by an extremely thin and fragile atmospheric layer (Job 26:10), the experience can be mind-changing if not life-changing.

The ISS orbits a little over 200 miles (322 km) above Earth’s surface. The Kármán Line at 100 km (62 miles) is the internationally-recognized boundary of space. Recently, commercial space companies have taken private individuals beyond that boundary to view Earth from space and briefly experience microgravity described as weightlessness. Perhaps the most notable was 90-year-old actor William Shatner who played Captain Kirk on the TV series Star Trek. In a tweet he wrote before the flight, he described himself as “a boy playing on the seashore…whilst the great ocean of truth lay all undiscovered before me.”

Shatner’s reaction after he returned to Earth’s surface is very interesting. He shed emotional tears, and here is some of what he said:

“I’m so filled with emotion about what just happened. It’s extraordinary, extraordinary. It’s so much larger than me and life… It has to do with the enormity and the quickness and the suddenness of life and death… To see the blue color whip by you, and now you’re staring into backness…everybody in the world needs to do this. Everybody in the world needs to see this.”

I think Shatner is correct that it would be beneficial for each of us to see Earth from that perspective just once in our lifetime. The overview effect could change our attitude toward many things, including life and death. In addition, it would help us realize just how small we are and how amazing it is that God cares about us. (See Matthew 6:25-34.)

— Roland Earnst © 2021