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The Overview Effect

Picture of Earth taken by CSA astronaut David Saint-Jacques

Picture of Earth taken by Canadian Space Agency (CSA) astronaut David Saint-Jacques during his mission to the International Space Station (ISS). The faint blue line of the atmosphere is visible. (Credit: CSA/NASA)

What is the Overview Effect?

When astronauts first see our planet from space, they go through intense emotions. Seeing our home against the blackness of space is a profound experience that leads to a greater appreciation for Earth and its apparent fragility, and a deep connection to humanity as a whole. This is what author and space philosopher Frank White called the Overview Effect in a book published in .

In the ISS, CSA astronaut David Saint-Jacques opens the shutters on the windows of the Cupola. (Credits: CSA, NASA)

How might the Overview Effect impact astronauts' mental health?

L'astronaute de la NASA Bruce McCandless flotte librement dans l'espace en 1984

NASA astronaut Bruce McCandless floats untethered in space in . (Credit: NASA)

From space, astronauts see a world with no borders. They see the paper-thin atmosphere that protects everything on our planet. Around it is the deadly vacuum of space. The true impact the Overview Effect has on people is not well understood. Even for those who have flown in space, it can be difficult to communicate the life-changing experience. Most who have been to space return to Earth wanting to protect it more than ever. The environment, the people, the ecosystems – Earth is all we have. Astronauts report how fragile our planet looks from above. They come home with a new mindset. Some channel this into activism or art.

While on the ISS, CSA astronaut David Saint-Jacques was amazed by the beauty of Earth. Space provides a unique vantage point from which to monitor and understand our planet. (Credits: CSA, NASA)

Looking at the planet causes a mix of emotions for those aboard the ISS. Happiness and familiarity are accompanied by fright and loneliness. How does this affect astronauts' mental health? Some feel small and insignificant. Others feel incredibly connected to their fellow earthlings. The experience is different for everyone.

LEGO city

Think of the smallest you have ever felt. Maybe it was looking down at a LEGOTM city or sandcastle that you built and imagining yourself living in it. Maybe it was looking out the window of a plane and seeing buildings looking like ants far below. How did looking down on something so small and so fragile make you feel?

The Overview Effect beyond Earth's orbit

Photo of the Earth taken by NASA astronaut William Anders

"Earthrise" over the Moon's horizon. This photo was taken by NASA astronaut William Anders during the Apollo 8 mission in , the first crewed journey to orbit the Moon. Nature photographer Galen Rowell described it as "the most influential environmental photograph ever taken." (Credit: NASA)

Will Artemis astronauts feel the same sense of awe and insignificance when seeing our home from the Moon?

Former CSA astronaut Chris Hadfield in the Cupola of the ISS

Former CSA astronaut Chris Hadfield in the Cupola of the ISS where Earth fills up the view. (Credit: NASA)

The Overview Effect is most strongly felt by astronauts on their first trip to space. The ISS orbits Earth only about 400 km above, and the planet takes up most of the view in the few windows of the Station.

But how will astronauts experience the Overview Effect on the Moon? And even farther away on Mars?

Our "Blue Marble" can be seen from the Moon, but it is barely visible from Mars, and that will undoubtedly affect astronauts' mental health even more. Will they feel lonelier? Will they feel completely disconnected to Earth? Are there technologies and solutions that can help astronauts feel connected to our home planet and less isolated despite the distance and the duration of those missions?

The Mars rover Curiosity took a photo of our home planet from the surface of Mars

The Mars rover Curiosity takes a photo of our home planet from the surface of Mars. (Credit: NASA)

Seeing Earth provides a point of familiarity. Right now, scientists can only guess the psychological impact of not being able to see home or to see it so tiny in the void of space. Regardless, they are already searching for solutions. So as we venture farther into space, mental preparedness will be crucial. Finding tools and strategies to feel connected to the home planet and maintaining the mental wellness of space travellers will be increasingly important. What solutions can you imagine?

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