A VR View From Space Could Change the World
Astronauts describe the sight of Earth from orbit — the overview effect — as life-altering. Can we recreate this experience on the ground?
It was my first space walk. I held onto the edge of the International Space Station and looked down at the Earth below me. It was breathtaking and beautiful. I felt an overwhelming sense of connection, and I began to cry.
This wasn’t a real trip to space — my motion sickness is far too bad for that, among other obstacles of going into orbit. Rather, it was a virtual reality trip to space called Home, created by VR studio REWIND and the BBC. It seemed wildly ambitious to try to recreate such a profoundly magical experience in VR, and yet I was undeniably moved.
A total of 565 people have seen the Earth from orbit, and each one has reported feeling intense emotions when they did. It has become known as the overview effect, a cognitive shift in awareness described by generations of astronauts as a life-changing experience, which results in a deep connection to Earth. Researchers want to help non-astronauts understand at least some of the awe and power it inspires, believing that it could change how we relate to the planet and how we treat it.
“When viewing Earth from space, astronauts talk about awe and wonder at both the beauty of Earth and the vastness of space stretching out in all directions,” says David Yaden, a researcher specializing in awe and the overview effect at the University of Pennsylvania.
The overview effect was coined by author and space philosopher Frank White in his 1987 book of the same name. Although it has affected astronauts in different ways, they are united in their descriptions of an extremely powerful encounter. “It’s hard to explain how amazing and magical this experience is,” says NASA shuttle astronaut Kathryn D. Sullivan, as quoted in On Orbit and Beyond. “First of all, there’s the astounding beauty and diversity of the planet itself, scrolling across your view at what appears to be a smooth, stately pace… I’m happy to report that no amount of prior study or training can fully prepare anybody for the awe and wonder this inspires.”