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Rethinking the Overview Effect

Two of the most significant products of NASA’s Apollo Program were not new technologies, but photographs of the Earth from space that animated an entire worldview. In 1987, American author and aerospace engineer Frank White coined “The Overview Effect” to describe a positive mental shift reported by astronauts after viewing the Earth from outer space. Since then, White’s idea has become popular with space psychologists, space industry advocates, politicians, environmental and peace movements, and most recently, members of the public with an interest in space exploration. White argues that Overview is a naturally-occurring phenomenon that affirms his belief that humanity’s destiny is to colonize the cosmos. This paper argues against the “naturalness” of The Overview Effect by exploring three historical cases. First, the author examines the cold war military origins of three ideas framing Overview: the “Gaia Hypothesis”, the concept of “Space Ship Earth”, and the “Blue Marble” photograph taken during the Apollo 17 mission in 1972. The author continues by examining the deep tensions between astronauts and psychologists which have compromised astronaut self-reporting. The author also revisits a different idea from the 1950s called “The Break-Off Phenomenon”, where pilots reported feeling depressed, anxious, disconnected, and physically separated from the planet below—a pessimistic view at odds with Overview. The author argues that perceptions of natural places, including the Earth seen from space, are deeply cultural and historical, and always undergoing change. The Overview Effect isn’t a natural phenomenon, but rather just one of many possible ways of experiencing this view, one animated by Cold War-era Western-centric desires for space colonization.


Article inside journal

Issue No. 277 - The Space Age Fifty Years After Apollo
Časopis za kritiko znanosti
2019 , volume volume 47 , issue issue 277
9,00 € each (incl. tax - DDV)
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