When you think of the Sun, what do you imagine? Something along the lines of a ball of light set in a blue sky on a warm day? As residents of Earth, it’s difficult for us to consider the Sun in its cosmic setting as most of us will never get to see it like that, suspended in the cold, black expanse of space. However astronauts, like Bob Behnken and Doug Hurley who recently joined the ISS as part of the SpaceX mission, do get to see the Sun like this, as well as Earth, and it has a remarkable impact on them.
The “overview effect” is a term used to describe the sensation of witnessing planet Earth from space, and those fortunate enough to have experienced it universally describe it as a powerful sensation. John Glenn, the first astronaut in orbit, told Alan Shepherd, the first American in space, over radio: "Oh that view is tremendous", upon reaching orbit. Astronaut Kathryn D. Sullivan said of looking back on our planet: “I'm happy to report that no amount of prior study or training can fully prepare anybody for the awe and wonder this inspires.”
Despite being into space three times now, apparently that feeling never gets old, as Behnken told CNBC during a recent NASA media event: "You see that it's a single planet with a shared atmosphere. It's our shared place in this universe. So, I think that perspective, as we go through things like the pandemic or we see the challenges across our nation or across the world, we recognize that we all face them together."
A 19-minute documentary called OVERVIEW saw a handful of astronauts share their experience of the effect. Perhaps one of the most humbling was Ron Garan, an astronaut who spent 177 days in space, who said, "When we look down at the Earth from space, we see this amazing, indescribably beautiful planet. It looks like a living, breathing organism. But it also, at the same time, looks extremely fragile... Anybody else who's ever gone to space says the same thing because it really is striking and it's really sobering to see this paper-thin layer and to realize that that little paper-thin layer is all that protects every living thing on Earth from death, basically."
So, what does the overview effect do to the mind and body? A 2016 study published by the American Psychological Association explored the potential benefits of space flight and found that the frequent and powerful sensation of awe inspired by the overview effect actually helped crews work as a team. "Experiences of awe are associated with well-being, as well as altruistic and other prosocial behavior," the authors wrote.
They go on to highlight that previous research has indicated that regular influxes of positive emotions can heighten attention and fuel creativity, which are very valuable assets when living onboard a vessel that can throw you complex and potentially-fatal challenges at any given moment. It's also possible these awe-inspiring and happy experiences could improve the astronaut’s physical health, as the study explains it's been previously found that positive emotions can improve cardiovascular health as well as mental health.
"The overview effect may be among the most meaningful aspects of space flight and may form an important buffer against some of the psychological risks of space missions," they wrote.
For some, the idea of seeing everything and everyone you’ve ever known and loved confined to a small "pale blue dot" in a vast black landscape is a daunting prospect, but reviews seem to indicate across the board that the overview effect is a good one. Perhaps we could all try and inspire some awe in these difficult times with the overview effect by reminding ourselves that of all the planets known to humanity we were somehow lucky enough to be on the only one at just the right distance from the Sun to support life. The only planet with a paper-thin envelope creating an atmosphere in which that life could evolve, and all of us are tucked inside. When Jim Lovell completed his space flight onboard Apollo 8, he looked back on an Earth enduring widespread riots and the Vietnam war, and he could block it all out simply by placing his thumb against the window. We really are smaller than we think.
If none of that made you feel anything, maybe fly to space? Idk.