In October last year, William Shatner – like his character in Star Trek and the protagonist in his definitive version of Elton John's Rocket Man – went to space. On the ground after landing, his mood seemed different to the others celebrating around him. He appeared to be trying to talk through his thoughts on the experience when he was interrupted by Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos spraying champagne all over the floor.
In a piece for Variety ahead of the release of his autobiography, Shatner explained some of the emotions he was going through on that journey to space, and upon seeing the Earth below. He believes he experienced something known as the "overview effect", where astronauts report overwhelming emotions, appreciation of the beauty and fragility of Earth, and a new sense of connection to other people and Earth.
He writes that, being a huge fan of the mysteries of the universe, he had expected to be thrilled by gazing out into space while aboard Blue Origin.
"But when I looked in the opposite direction, into space, there was no mystery, no majestic awe to behold . . . all I saw was death," he wrote. "I saw a cold, dark, black emptiness. It was unlike any blackness you can see or feel on Earth. It was deep, enveloping, all-encompassing. I turned back toward the light of home."
Gazing back at Earth, he felt a new connection to the planet.
"I could see the curvature of Earth, the beige of the desert, the white of the clouds and the blue of the sky. It was life. Nurturing, sustaining, life. Mother Earth. Gaia. And I was leaving her."
"Everything I had thought was wrong. Everything I had expected to see was wrong."
Shatner describes the feeling as realizing that beauty is down here on Earth, with humans, rather than up there in space.
"It was among the strongest feelings of grief I have ever encountered. The contrast between the vicious coldness of space and the warm nurturing of Earth below filled me with overwhelming sadness."
"Every day, we are confronted with the knowledge of further destruction of Earth at our hands: the extinction of animal species, of flora and fauna . . . things that took 5 billion years to evolve, and suddenly we will never see them again because of the interference of mankind. It filled me with dread. My trip to space was supposed to be a celebration; instead, it felt like a funeral."
Feelings similar to this have been experienced by astronauts and cosmonauts over the years, from Yuri Gagarin to Michael Collins, who famously said that politicians' outlooks would change if they could see what he had.
"From out there on the Moon, international politics look so petty," astronaut Edgar Mitchell said in 1974, "you want to grab a politician by the scruff of the neck and drag him a quarter of a million miles out and say, 'Look at that, you son of a b****.'"
Frank White, the philosopher who first came up with the term "the overview effect" while looking out of a plane window, believes based on interviews that the effect is more pronounced in astronauts who went to or orbited around the Moon. This is due to the way they see the Earth as a whole and in the context of the whole universe. He believes the effect could be bigger when humans approach Mars.
"When they land on Mars, in relationship to the Earth, there is a big difference, because the Earth will be a point of light," he told NASA. "That's going to be dramatically new for us, because even on the moon, you can still [see] our home, our planet. And there is some concern about the psychological impact of not being able to see our home."