The classic “Blue Marble” image of the Earth, taken by the Apollo 17 crew on Dec. 7, 1972. (Courtesy NASA)
The classic “Blue Marble” image of the Earth, taken by the Apollo 17 crew on Dec. 7, 1972. (Courtesy NASA)

Marina Koren on Rethinking the “Overview Effect”

The writer speaks about why the phenomenon that can occur when seeing the Earth from outer space needs to be studied and understood in a more nuanced way.
By Spencer Bailey
February 13, 2023
16 minute read

Marina Koren, who covers science and space exploration as a staff writer for The Atlantic, realizes her job doesn’t sound real. “But I promise it is,” she says. “When I tell people I’m a ‘space reporter,’ they’re not quite sure what to do with that. But space is a beat.”

It’s a beat, indeed—one she delivers to the masses, or at least to those of us who read The Atlantic, through her concise, clarifying, and entertaining writing. Since January 2017, beginning with a piece about then-president-elect Donald Trump’s space policy, Koren has written hundreds of articles about the cosmos. Shaping necessary and essential stories around these new frontiers, she has focused on subjects ranging from astronaut DNA, to space mice, to the aesthetics of spaceflight, to asteroid deflection. For The Atlantic’s January/February 2023 issue, Koren wrote a salient piece about the “overview effect,” the cognitive shift that can occur when seeing the Earth from outer space—a subject she and I discuss at length on the latest episode of our At a Distance podcast, excerpted below.

More recently, Koren put together an online feature titled “The Existential Wonder of Space,” an effort that makes humanity’s ongoing giant leaps into space eerily, presciently personal. Built into the piece is a sort of “space calculator” based on your birth year (in my case, 1985). It tells me I’ll be 49 when the Dragonfly mission reaches Titan; that I could ride Disney World’s Space Mountain 1,929,530 times by 2034; that I’ll be 84 when a radio transmission from Earth in 1999 reaches a star in the constellation Cygnus; that I could listen to David Bowie’s “Space Oddity” 4,639,780 times by the time that same Cygnus call is delivered; and that I’ll be 63 “when a full moon coincides with a leap day, a rare, once-in-a-century event.” Doing what Koren does best, the piece playfully makes the universal—or, to be more exact, the universe—personal.

Here, a condensed and edited version of my conversation with Koren.

Click here to listen to the full interview on our At a Distance podcast.

Marina Koren. (Courtesy The Atlantic)
Marina Koren. (Courtesy The Atlantic)

Let’s start with your approach to the space beat. What does your job entail?

It’s a beat like any other. There are powerful institutions to hold accountable. Those institutions are NASA, for example, or SpaceX, or Blue Origin. And they have interesting stories worth covering.

I approach it in two ways: There’s the spaceflight side of things—human spaceflight. What SpaceX and Blue Origin are doing, and what NASA is trying to do with putting humans on the Moon for the first time since 1972—so many fascinating stories there. And then there’s the category of space science, which is: astronomers and planetary scientists, and what they’re doing to learn more about the planets and moons in the solar system and beyond that—work on stars and galaxies, and the Big Bang, how far back into the universe.

It’s a big beat, basically. [Laughs] I just try to cover the universe as best as I can.

You recently wrote a piece headlined “Seeing Earth From Space Will Change You,” about the “overview effect.” Frank White coined this term in the early ’80s. Could you share a bit about who he is, and also how and why he came up with that term, and what it means?

In the early to mid-’80s, Frank White was on a cross-country flight, and he was doing what a lot of us probably do on a plane, which is staring out the window and having way too many existential thoughts about the meaning of life and our own individual lives. He was already a big sci-fi fan, and he realized, as he looked out the window of the plane, that future generations of human beings might be way more advanced than we are, and they might live off-world in space stations of some kind, orbiting Earth. Their view would always be of Earth from afar, and they might have certain insights that would otherwise take people a lot more time to have if they remained earthbound. To him, this was something really magical, having this overview effect, seeing Earth from afar, as it really is. He hypothesized that, for the average person, that must change the way you think, it must be profound, it might be overwhelming, it might shift peoples’ perspectives.

So, to test his hypothesis, White decided to start interviewing astronauts. He started noticing patterns in these conversations. They would report being overwhelmed by the beauty of the earth, being struck by how fragile and thin the atmosphere was, and how that was all that separated us from the great, mysterious, even scary beyond. So that idea really took off.

I can’t remember the first time I heard about the overview effect. But for me, it was always a thing that I knew existed and was a given. And I was interested to learn that it’s not exactly one size fits all.

You describe it as this cultural and celestial phenomenon. Could you speak to both of these aspects of it, the cultural and the celestial?

There is a great space historian at the University of Chicago, Jordan Bimm, who has written perhaps the only critique of the overview effect, which just goes to show how ingrained this idea is in our culture. He and I have talked about this a lot. He sparked the idea for the piece in the magazine, about how the way that we sometimes talk about the overview effect, it almost sounds like it’s this gift that the universe bestows on people who happen to reach orbit. As if it’s a natural side effect of being in space. But Jordan argues that that’s not the case—the way that people react to that sight really depends on their backgrounds and their training. If you’re looking at NASA astronauts, these people who go to space are products of their place in time. So the reactions that they might have—while there are potentially some common themes, and of course it’s difficult not to be wowed by the sight—but when you get into more of the details of peoples’ responses, those are really informed by their life experience.

For example, Hayley Arceneaux is a physician’s assistant who went to space a couple of years ago on SpaceX, and she spent a few days in orbit. And when she looked outside of the capsule down at Earth, she saw a borderless world, and there was a sense of unity and connectedness with humankind that a lot of people have talked about. But because of her experience in healthcare, she was really struck by healthcare disparities across the world. For her, seeing Earth as it truly is—beautiful, gleaming, blue—brought that out because of her personal experience. I haven’t found an account from an Apollo astronaut that’s like, “Ugh, healthcare, we’ve really gotta crack down on that flawed system.”

For the piece, you also spoke to William Shatner, famous as Captain Kirk in Star Trek. And he had gone up to space in the fall of 2021, on a Blue Origin flight, at age 90. He told you when he was in orbit that he had these strong feelings of grief related to the climate crisis. What did you make of those views, and do you think his response is the typical one?

It’s become more common in the last few years, maybe the last couple of decades, for even astronauts who go to space, to come home, and when they’re asked about their experience to say, “We really need to take care of planet Earth.” It becomes clear from that high up that this is the only home that we have, and maybe we should stop screwing it up in the way that we have been with climate change. You’re definitely hearing more of those accounts from people. But William Shatner definitely gave the most depressing report back, I think, that most people have heard. Even when I talked to him, we talked a year out from his flight, which I have to remind you lasted three minutes. So the flight, from start to finish, is about ten minutes. But the actual experience of weightlessness and getting a chance to look out the window, that’s three minutes.

We’re talking, it’s a year after his flight, and he was still tearing up on the phone with me because he was still reliving that grief. And he did say that maybe I just caught him on a bad day. He had just read a story about microplastics in the environment that morning, and it was top of mind for him. But I think we’ll be hearing more of those stories. Because if you’re overwhelmed by the sight of Earth and its fragility—it’s just this perfect oasis suspended in this vast nothingness—and then you come back home and climate change is a very real problem, how do you not feel some grief about that? I think it’s an understandable response.

Pulling out a little bit, what impact do you think it would have on the planet if more people in positions of power—particularly executives, politicians, decision-makers—could experience this view of Earth? Do you think something would change? Do you think the overview effect has the power to shift how people think about the Earth, and more importantly, behave and act on Earth?

Yeah, this is such a good question, and it’s one I tried to tackle in my writing.

There are people in positions of power right now who have been to space. The administrator of NASA at the moment is Bill Nelson, who is a former longtime senator. He flew on a kind of PR flight in the ’80s. He did train, but it was more of a way for NASA to kind of secure future funding, by inviting a member of Congress into orbit. I’ve talked to him before about how his spaceflight changed him. He said that it definitely made him more environmentally conscious, which is not a radical thing to say—he’s a Democrat.

So I think, as more people go into space—and experience the overview effect, whatever that means to them—will that lead to a meaningful change on Earth? I don’t know. I feel cynical. But there are a couple of things here. Yes, more people are going into space right now because of the commercial space business. But we’re not going to be seeing exponential growth. I think it’ll still be maybe a dozen people going to the edge of space once a year, and maybe four people going into orbit once a year.

Only six hundred or so people have been to space so far, and that’s a small number in human history. And most of those people have been astronauts who are paid federal government salaries, and they can’t really do much. The astronauts that I’ve talked to, they’ve said that they recycle more, maybe they consider solar panels when they’re building a new home, but there’s nothing they can do on a bigger scale. So it is exciting that more executives and billionaires and important people are going up. I think Jeff Bezos has donated quite a bit of money to climate change efforts since his spaceflight. Which is great. But he could have done that before going to space.

One academic said something that has really stuck with me, and her name is Deana Weibel. She said that you don’t need to go to space to learn basic human empathy, that you might try to teach schoolchildren. That you don’t have to go to space to care about your fellow citizens of Earth. You don’t have to go to space to care about the planet. Certainly, it’s a giant dose of—you’ve been grabbed by the shoulders and shaken. It’s a perspective shift. But you can have that perspective shift on the ground.

Just one final point is that if billionaires want to have this experience, and then come back down and say, “Wow, that was life-changing, that was so profound, I’m going to give back to these causes now,” that’s fantastic. Go nuts. But I’m worried there’s a little bit of a sinister side to that kind of thing. Any rich person now can go to space and come home and say, “Well, I’ve had this profound experience. So this is why I’m gonna do this,” whether it’s selling a product or pushing some type of agenda or narrative, and people will tend to believe them and go along with it, because that person has experienced something that most of us haven’t. We put stock into that. We think, Oh, you’ve had this life-changing, celestial experience. I have to believe what you’re saying. But it’s possible that some of these people are not going to be honest. So I’m worried about that.

How do you think about the overview effect in the context of that famous blue marble image from 1972, taken by the crew of Apollo 17? Fifty plus years later, I think we’ve forgotten how extraordinary that image was at the time. Now it seems sort of mundane with the proliferation of space imagery. Do you think, with more people going up into space, there might also be a similar effect, where you have a lot of people just seeing the same image, where there’s almost an Instagram effect of spaceflight?

Yeah, I’ve wondered about that. And again, I don’t want to be too pessimistic, but that’s a possibility. I think we shouldn’t discount the possibility that someone goes into orbit, sees Earth from space, and is, after a day or two, a little bit underwhelmed. If that sounds unfathomable, consider the fact that there are people who leave one star reviews for National Parks on Tripadvisor. There are people who go to the Grand Canyon, and they’re like, “Ehh, all right, time to go home.” So I don’t want to say that people will be underwhelmed by what they see.

But I think that we are definitely spoiled in a way that people who saw the blue marble picture for the first time are not visually spoiled. We live in a time when special effects are fantastic. You have David Attenborough narrating a nature documentary about CGI dinosaurs. So I do sometimes wonder whether our capacity for awe has changed in that way. I still think that going to space would be just such a brain-scrambling experience, because there are so many physical sensations that go along with it. Especially with a Blue Origin flight. It happens so fast: You’re on the ground; then suddenly, you’re weightless; then you’re back down. Our eyes were not meant to see—they did not evolve to see and process—Earth from that perspective. So it’s very jarring, and I think that can lead to having a meaningful and profound experience. But if you’re in orbit for a week, maybe you kind of… I don’t want to say the view gets old, but it could. And I have talked to astronauts for whom the view didn’t make them that emotional, or as emotional as a non-astronaut might expect. And maybe that’s a personality thing. Chris Cassidy, retired from NASA now, said that he’s a very list-oriented guy. He’s really into getting tasks done. He’s not an emotional person. So he was not overcome with a wave of emotion when he looked out on to Earth.

There’s just such a range of perspectives. The overview effect, it’s a useful framework, but it also kind of flattens the experience in a way that I think we should be rethinking in this era of commercial spaceflight.