On February 6th, 2018 SpaceX launched the fourth-highest capacity rocket ever built into space, coming in after Saturn V, Energia, and the N1 - its currently the most powerful rocket in operation. Coined as “Falcon Heavy,” its purpose and design are to carry humans to outer space beyond low Earth Orbit, reaching for the Moon, Mars, and potentially be used for asteroid mining. This rocketship is not alone however; SpaceX CEO, Elon Musk decided to throw his own Tesla Roadster aboard, and with it, a spacesuit he dubbed as “Spaceman,” where the dummy will be taking a 200 million mile journey - flying through empty nothingness and is expected to reach Mars in 6 months. You can watch the live stream here, showing Spaceman’s drive to a planet I hope we terraform one day.
Falcon Heavy’s maiden flight made national news coverage. The launch was broadcasted on SpaceX’s personal website and was also featured on other social media outlets such as Reddit, Youtube, and even Twitch. Youtube stream chats were littered with comments, spawning faster than when Twitch.Tv played Pokemon, but the dynamic shift of the comments during the launch is what caught my attention. While the rocket was propelling into orbit, the chat garnered reactions from flat-earth believers spewing (1) conspiracy theories, to others responding with deep fascination. It’s was like these people have never seen pictures or videos that document life in orbit (or have seen NASA’s ISS orbiting live feed). But let's ignore the comments from the Flat Earth Society and focus on the people who claimed a sense of “awe” when seeing the earth from space for the first time. What and why did they get that reaction? What is it exactly?
Well, let's look at what space does to humans.
The effects space has on the human body is a pretty hot topic within the scientific community. NASA and researchers aboard the International Space Station show that living in space for extended periods of time is detrimental to the human body (2). Without having our body firmly planted on Earth, our bodies begin to deteriorate pretty rapidly. Earth’s gravity, the constant force Earth exudes onto our bodies, keeps us strong as we use our muscles to continuously fight against it. In order to mitigate and combat bone and muscle loss, crew members aboard the ISS are required to exercise at least 2 hours a day. But, despite their rigorous exercise schedule, astronauts still have to be assisted out of returned spaceships and go through months, sometimes years of intensive physical therapy. Some members aboard the International Space Station report feelings of isolation and confinement, which harbors a stressful environment - prolonged stress negatively affect the body in a number of ways, ranging from respiratory and cardiovascular issues, gastrointestinal issues, to irritability and behavioral issues(3). The affect space has on our bodies comes with a myriad of problems, a valid reason why manned space exploration is at a halt.
Space is bad, obviously, but still cool.
But what does space do to the mind? Space & the human’s psyche.
(4) In April of 1961, Yuri Gagarian became the first human in space, orbiting the earth aboard Vostok 1. The Soviet astronaut was the winner of the space race between the Soviet Union and the United States when the superpowers were competing for the first successful human spaceflight. When Yuri returned safely back to Earth’s surface he expressed both beauty and concern for our planet. His saying is pretty self-explanatory, articulately stating that, (5)
“Circling the Earth in my orbital spaceship, I marveled at the beauty of our planet. People of the world, let us safeguard and enhance this beauty, and not destroy it.”
This perception and tone are well documented among the small community that has been to outer space. Astronauts like Ron Garan, Thomas David Jones, Mike Massimino, and Edgar Mitchell have all said very similar perspective-like descriptions from orbiting Earth.
"You develop an instant global consciousness, a people orientation, an intense dissatisfaction with the state of the world, and a compulsion to do something about it. From out there on the moon, international politics look so petty. 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 bitch."
This is a quote that resonated with me, it came from Edgar Mitchell who was an astronaut from Apollo 14.(6)
These astronauts describe what it’s like to witness the reality that is space, observing it firsthand and relating the experience with themes of beauty, feeling minuscule, and the man-made issues concerning the environment. Observing Earth from space seems to provoke a profound sense of awe, changing the way cosmonauts perceive our green-and-blue marbled rock in space. Neil Armstrong, the first human to walk on the moon said, (7)
“It suddenly struck me that that tiny pea, pretty and blue, was the Earth. I put up my thumb and shut one eye, and my thumb blotted out the planet Earth. I didn't feel like a giant. I felt very, very small.”
So what is this feeling?
This experience is called a “cognitive shift.” It's a psychological phenomenon that's often reported when a person undergoes new experiences such as religious experiences, using psychedelic drugs, mental disorders, and I guess from observing Earth from outer space. This shift changes an individual's thinking patterns, resulting in feelings of extreme happiness, euphoria, to anxiety and panic. During this phenomenon, changes are made to how an individual’s conscious and unconscious mind communicate with each other. (8)
Frank White and the “Overview Effect”
The Overview Effect is a cognitive shift that is often reported amongst crew members during spaceflight. Its the sudden realization of feeling infinitesimal, unimportant, and acknowledging that borders and segregation are man-made. It is a term that is used in describing the feelings and experience when going to space for the first time, referring to the change of consciousness from gazing back at our home planet. Astronauts that have returned to our rocky abode have a strong but deeper respect for Earth and the fragility that is life. In 1987 Frank White coined the term in his book “The Over Effect - Space Exploration and Human Evolution”, where he explored the theme of the shift. White’s book talks about and deciphers the meaning behind “Immediate understanding of the tiny, fragile ball of life, hanging in the void”. (8)
“Overview” is a 20-minute short film talking about the Overview Effect, I’ll post the video below. If you’ve never watched a video on space exploration or live feeds orbiting space, I totally suggest you do.
Seeing photos and videos of Earth from outer space always makes me feel such wonder and fear, but not in a bad way, kind of like the “woahhh” you get from a stoner. If you really think about it life is a pretty fragile thing. I guess you can say I have an acute Overview Effect?! I don’t know. Watching the Earth spin in a constant motion, indefinitely, to me, is thought-provoking and relaxing. It’s slow, twirling dance really helps you learn to appreciate the complexities of life that much more.
Why? It just does.
(1) "Yup, Flat-Earthers Think the Falcon Heavy Launch Was a Conspiracy"
(2) The Human Body In Space: NASA Human Research Program
(3) American Psychological Association: Stress Effects on the Body
(4) Yuri Gagarin: First Man In Space NASA.Gov
(5) New Mexico Space Museum: Yuri A. Gagarin Space Hall of Fame
(6) Goodreads.com: Edgar D. Mitchell Quotes
(7) www.brainyquote.com Neil Armstrong Quote "It struck me..."
(8) Emotion: Psychology, Cognitive Psychology "Cognitive Shift", by CTI Reviews: Google books
(9) Psychology of Space Exploration: Contemporary Research in Historical Perspective, edited by Douglas A. Vakoch, Google Books