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A Psychological Transformation That Only Astronauts Experience

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We know very little about the effect of space travel on the human psyche – but what we have learned so far suggests that it's profound.

Above: The highest resolution photograph of Earth ever captured | Credit: NASA

Perhaps you're familiar with this quote from Apollo 14 astronaut Edgar Mitchell, in which he describes the effects of his view of Earth from space:

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."


That instant sense of global consciousness is a hallmark symptom of what author and philosopher Frank White first called the "overview effect" in his book of the same name. (Carl Sagan's "Pale Blue Dot" speech is another classic description of the effect.) Here's Sydney Brownstone, who writes about the overview effect – and its psychological cousin, the "break-off" effect – in a recent piece at Co.EXIST:

The overview effect: a highly emotional anomaly experienced upon entry into space and a cosmic sign of human progress. [Frank White] came up with the idea in 1987, and today it's become something of a spiritual backbone for the commercial space tourism industry. After the deaths of seven astronauts in the Challenger accident in 1986, White argued in his treatise The Overview Effect: Space Exploration and Human Evolution that lone government budgets couldn't make space exploration achieve its true potential. The overview effect—which in theory would rally all of humankind toward a space-oriented quest for survival—could help us get there.


Brownstone spoke with several pilots, astronauts, historians and aeronautics experts about their experiences, but we were especially taken with Mae Jemison's thoughts on the overview effect:

Dr. Mae Jemison, the first African-American woman astronaut in space, went out and bought The Overview Effect while training for spaceflight. But it didn't resonate with her the way it did with other astronauts. "When I read The Overview Effect, people started talking about their hearts connected to this planet. But my response when I went into space is that I was connected to everything," she says. "I felt much more connected to everything else in the universe, and sometimes on Earth I felt much more separate from the rest of the universe. I felt like I had as much right to be in space or in this universe as any speck of stardust. I was as eternal as that."

Jemison believes that whatever you experience in space has a lot to do with how you see the universe—and your own existence—from here on Earth. In that sense, she says, overview might just be one of many new space syndromes experienced by people who break away from the home planet. "In some ways [going to space] is almost a Rorschach test for what you believe in, right?"


We still have a lot to learn about the psychological effects of space travel, whether it's a quick jaunt to the edges of Earth's atmosphere, or an extended mission to deep space. The handful of studies that have examined the psychological effects of extended isolation in cramped-quarters have turned up mixed results.


Above: A Fish-eye view of the Space Shuttle Atlantis and, beyond it, Earth, as seen from the Russian Mir space station during the STS-71 mission | Credit: NASA

Take the European Space Agency's Mars-500 mission, for instance. Four of the mission's six crew members experienced "behavioral disturbances" and "psychological distress" that led to intra-crew conflict, and tension between the crew and mission control.


At 520-days long, Mars-500 is the longest psychosocial isolation experiment ever conducted by the ESA, but while conditions aboard the simulation were certainly stressful, they didn't hold a candle to what astronauts would face on an actual Mars mission. As we've noted before, astronauts on future missions will have to be psychologically capable of surrendering to the fact that they are literally millions of miles from home, stuck in a tiny compartment, with no possibility of leaving (at least not until Martian touchdown or a safe return to Earth).


Notably, the Mars500 team never had a chance to experience the overview effect; the simulation never left Earth's surface, let alone its atmosphere. Of course, the flipside to the sense of wonder that the overview effect brings is the anxiety that such physical remoteness can kindle in even the most stalwart hearts. While none of the Mars-500 crew decided to leave the simulation at any point, the option was always available to them. The sense of safety and security that this afforded the crew cannot be disregarded.

Brownstone's feature on the mysterious mental side-effects of space travel can be found in its entirety at Co.EXIST.