Space humility

People who see our planet from outer space experience profound awe, humility, and a recognition of the fragility of life. They return to Earth changed.

Earth from Apollo 11
NASA, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

The image above is a photograph of Earth taken from Apollo 11 as it was flying away from the planet. Michael Collins, one of the three astronauts on board, described his feelings at the time:

The thing that really surprised me was that it projected an air of fragility. And why, I don’t know. I don’t know to this day. I had a feeling it’s tiny, it’s shiny, it’s beautiful, it’s home, and it’s fragile.

Michael Collins

Collins travelled around the Moon 52 years ago, but up until he died (yesterday!) he kept that feeling of the precarious and precious nature of Earth – a kind of awe and humility. And he wasn’t the only one. Many astronauts and cosmonauts have described the same experience. Seeing the whole planet from far above put things – literally – in a new perspective.

Before I flew I was already aware how small and vulnerable our planet is; but only when I saw it from space, in all its ineffable beauty and fragility, did I realize that humankind’s most urgent task is to cherish and preserve it for future generations.

Sigmund Jahn

This is the overview effect. Psychologically, it resembles feelings of spiritual transcendence. Seeing the entirety of life on Earth spread out like the skin of a soap bubble, and just as fragile, induces feelings of global connection and compassion. Put simply, when it comes to matters of the Earth, we are all in it together.

The feeling of unity is not simply an observation. With it comes a strong sense of compassion and concern for the state of our planet and the effect humans are having on it. It isn’t important in which sea or lake you observe a slick of pollution or in the forests of which country a fire breaks out, or on which continent a hurricane arises. You are standing guard over the whole of our Earth.

Yuri Artyukhin

With all the attention on the possible psychological pressures of space travel, it is encouraging to remember the positive effects too. There have even been attempts to recreate the effect back here on Earth with virtual reality and immersion tanks, but I suspect that nothing will compare to the real thing.

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