The Overview Effect: Seeing Earth from the Outside

Writer Frank White coined the term “The Overview Effect” to describe the deep changes that astronauts experience once they see Earth from space. He said, “In 1968, Apollo 8 went to the Moon. They didn’t land, but they did circle the Moon; I was watching it on television and at a certain point one of the astronauts casually said: we are going to turn the camera around and show you the Earth. And he did. And that was the first time I had ever seen the planet hanging in space like that. And it was profound.”


Apollo 8: Earthrise. ©Nasa

Astronaut Edgar D. Mitchell said,

“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.”

But you don’t need to have gone into space to have obtained that awareness; some forward-thinking individuals divined the importance of our island earth from their armchairs. In 1948, British astrophysicist Fred Hoyle predicted the change of viewpoint when he said,

“Once a photograph of the Earth, taken from outside, is available, we shall, in an emotional sense, acquire an additional dimension… Once let the sheer isolation of the Earth become plain to every man, whatever his nationality or creed, and a new idea as powerful as any in history will be let loose.”

Subsequent to Apollo 11, Hoyle spoke at a NASA scientific banquet and said,

“You have noticed how, quite suddenly, everybody has become seriously concerned to protect the natural environment. It happened almost overnight, and one can understand how one can ask the question, ‘Where did this idea come from?’ You could say, of course, from biologists, from conservationists, from ecologists, but after all, they’ve really been saying these things for many years past, and previously they’ve never even got on base. Something new has happened to create a worldwide awareness of our planet as a unique and precious place. It seems to me more than a coincidence that this awareness should have happened at exactly the moment man took his first step into space.”

A recent short documentary, Overview, collects statements from many astronauts who have had this unique experience.

With his famous essay on “The Pale Blue Dot,” Carl Sagan captured the essence of this effect, without himself ever having been in space physically, although he probably plumbed the universe more deeply in his mind than the vast body of humanity.


“… Look again at that dot. That’s here. That’s home. That’s us. On it everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives. The aggregate of our joy and suffering, thousands of confident religions, ideologies, and economic doctrines, every hunter and forager, every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer of civilization, every king and peasant, every young couple in love, every mother and father, hopeful child, inventor and explorer, every teacher of morals, every corrupt politician, every “superstar,” every “supreme leader,” every saint and sinner in the history of our species lived there – on a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam.

The Earth is a very small stage in a vast cosmic arena. Think of the rivers of blood spilled by all those generals and emperors, so that, in glory and triumph, they could become the momentary masters of a fraction of a dot. Think of the endless cruelties visited by the inhabitants of one corner of this pixel on the scarcely distinguishable inhabitants of some other corner, how frequent their misunderstandings, how eager they are to kill one another, how fervent their hatreds. Our posturings, our imagined self-importance, the delusion that we have some privileged position in the Universe, are challenged by this point of pale light.

Our planet is a lonely speck in the great enveloping cosmic dark. In our obscurity, in all this vastness, there is no hint that help will come from elsewhere to save us from ourselves.

The Earth is the only world known so far to harbor life. There is nowhere else, at least in the near future, to which our species could migrate. Visit, yes. Settle, not yet. Like it or not, for the moment the Earth is where we make our stand.

It has been said that astronomy is a humbling and character building experience. There is perhaps no better demonstration of the folly of human conceits than this distant image of our tiny world. To me, it underscores our responsibility to deal more kindly with one another, and to preserve and cherish the pale blue dot, the only home we’ve ever known…”.
– Pale Blue Dot: A Vision of the Human Future in Space

Recently published at YouTube was a video of the final message of Wubbo Johannes Ockels (March 28, 1946 – May 18, 2014), who was a Dutch physicist and an astronaut of the European Space Agency (ESA), riding on Space Shuttle STS-61-A, and becoming the first Dutch citizen in space. After his astronaut career, Ockels was professor of Aerospace for Sustainable Engineering and Technology at the Delft University of Technology. On May 29, 2013 it was announced that Ockels had an aggressive form of kidney cancer (renal cell carcinoma) with a metastasis in his pleural cavity, and a life expectancy of one to two years. He died from complications of cancer on May 18, 2014, one day after making this video.

A transcript in English of Dr. Ockels’ remarks follows.

“We need some luck. Some other spacecraft. Something, because with what we have now, it’s going to be finished. As an astronaut, you feel excluded to a particular group of people. And those are the people in the majority. They are you, not being aware of the danger in which you live.

But now suppose I’m going to change all of you. Suppose I can transfer the experience which I have to you. Then you would go out and see the earth, and you would see the blue sky, not the blue sky which you see when you go outside; in space you see that you are the only one. The only planet. You have no spare. And so you have to take care of this one only planet.

Our earth has cancer. I have cancer too. And most people with cancer, they die. When in fact, everybody will die. If we make enough people to continuously survive mankind on the earth, we need to conserve our own planet, and you when you have the spirit and the insight and the attitude of an astronaut, you start to love the earth in a way that other people can’t. And if you really love something, you don’t want to lose it.

You know, my wife, she doesn’t want to lose me. She wants to do everything to let me stay alive. That’s the love and attitude which human kind should have to the earth. We do not have 50% of our roofs covered with solar. We do not have more than half of our cars electric. We certainly do not have a production in which there is a reasonable amount of material recycled. We don’t have all these things.

And then the question comes, ” OK, well what’s wrong?” Well, what’s wrong is the mindset. I’m sure, but I can’t claim it, but when I heard 18 April 2013 that I had a very bad cancer, damn kidney cancer, and also changed into a sarcomatoid, which means that, you know, which to slip through all kinds of things [by this he meant metastasis], and this, the doctor, beautiful doctor, and he said you have a fair amount of time. And of course each time I asked him, “what does ‘fair’ mean?” and then he was not very accurate, but he said, “Well, months, maybe a year.”

I got over a year, a good year, because I believed that the good future, and I believed, you know, you can do things with the power, with the mind power. We, we people coming from the same molecules out of one bloody strong star which bursted out, we who have developed over billions of years, life, life, is made by we, we humanity are so strong that we can save the earth – but we also can destroy it. Even a small thing does something.

The overwhelming burden of experience from those who have been outside the Earth’s atmosphere is that this little planet we live on is the only home we have, and we need to take care of it. Even if you happen to be a person of faith, taking the chiliastic view that we don’t need to worry about the Earth because God is going to come down and take care of everything strikes me as irresponsible, and unfair to future generations. Western Artist Stan Lynde captured my own sentiments decades ago:


While efforts are being made by forward-thinking individuals to reduce the damage we’re doing to our planet, there is still much to be done. We owe it to future generations to make a difference now. “Drill, baby, drill” just doesn’t do it for me.

The Old Wolf has spoken.

I’m going to Mars!

Well, at least my name is.


Today’s the last day to get your name on a chip that will be included on Orion’s test flight on December 4th; later submissions can still get on subsequent missions, including to the red planet itself.

You can sign up today, October 31, 2014 at NASA.

My old bones may be earthbound, but my spirit soars to the stars.

The Old Wolf has spoken.

There! Are! NINE! Planets!

Nine Planets Thumb


See, for the longest time, I’ve been fascinated by space, and the stars, and astronomy. When I was a kid in the 1950s I’d go from New York City where I lived to visit one of my uncles in the country, and he had an interesting and eclectic library, which things like CS Lewis’ Out of the Silent Planet or The World of Å by A.E. van Vogt. He also had this book:

zim stars

which I would spend hours and hours perusing, right around the same time Alfred Bester was publishing the exploits of Gully Foyle. In my own mind, the stars were my destination.

And of course, there were Nine Planets. Nine.

Solar System

This was cemented into my mind when, during the same epoch, I read Heinlein’s Have Space Suit, Will Travel. Beyond being a delightful space opera, it was full of hard science, too. Kip Russell was a genius who thought higher math was as addictive as peanuts, and had all sorts of astronomical data tucked away in his mind which helped him figure out where his evil worm-faced kidnappers were taking him and his little companion, Peewee.

“Mother very thoughtfully made a jelly sandwich under no protest.” Could you forget that after saying it a few times? Okay, lay it out so:

Mother Mercury $.39
Very Venus $.72
Thoughtfully Terra $1.00
Made Mars $1.50
A Asteroids Assorted prices,
Jelly Jupiter $5.20
Sandwich Saturn $9.50
Under Uranus $19.00
No Neptune $30.00
Protest Pluto $39.50

The “prices” are distances from the sun in astronomical units. An A.U. is the mean distance of Earth from Sun, 93,000,000 miles. It is easier to remember one figure that everyone knows and a lot of little figures than it is to remember figures in millions or billions. I use dollar signs because a figure has more flavor if I think of it as money – which Dad considers deplorable. Some way you must remember them, or you don’t know your own neighborhood. (Heinlein, Robert A., Have Space Suit, Will Travel).

And no, I could never forget it either. There were nine planets. Nine. And the mnemonic was seared into my consciousness forever. When Pluto was demoted from planetary status to “dwarf planet,” I was devastated. I refused to give in. No. Still a planet, always a planet. Apparently, others felt the same way I did, and for similar reasons:

I really wasn’t too concerned about Pluto’s demotion from being a planet. It was a non scientific discussion about a silly serious definition.

Well, at least that was until they decided to TAKE AWAY PLUTO’S NAME. WTF? So, please Mr It’s-Not-A-Planet-Just-A-No-Name-Dwarf Astronomer, what am I supposed to use for my mnemonic now? Huh?

I learned “Mother very thoughtfully made a jelly sandwich under no protest” as a teenager reading Robert Heinlein. And now? “Mother very thoughtfully made a jelly sandwich under no 134340” just doesn’t have the same ring to it.

[Update: Thanks Dan]
Pluto may have lost it’s planetary status, but it GOT A NEW NUMBER! It went from merely 9 to a rocking 134340! Wow, what a raise. I am however bummed that my favorite memonic, “Mother very thoughtfully made a jelly sandwich under no protest” learned as a teenager reading Robert Heinlein, no longer works.

Perhaps “Mother very thoughtfully made a cherry jelly sandwich under no protest. Excellent!”  (Hmmm, still doesn’t ring well.) Anyway I still stand to-

Sure tell me Pluto it isn’t a planet, but stop MESSING AROUND WITH MY CHILDHOOD! (From Eclectics Anonymous)

And that’s the crux of my objection: don’t screw around with what I learned as a child. If nothing else, Pluto should have been grandfathered in, because despite its true status as a captured Kuiper Belt object (as clearly shown by its off-kilter orbit and the identification of countless other trans-Neptunian objects), it was treated as a planet since it was discovered by Clyde Tombaugh.

Sadly, science moves on. As Neil de Grasse Tyson has said, the universe is under no obligation to make sense to us – it’s just out there, waiting to be discovered. In much the same way as they took away my beloved Brontosaurus, we learn new things every day. Now, as New Horizons approaches Pluto for a scheduled 2015 rendezvous, my excitement to see our last little solar system outlier (at least, that’s the way it was in the 50s) knows no bounds.


“The [above] animation of Pluto and its largest moon, Charon, was created using a series of images captured by the New Horizons spacecraft as it continues its long journey to the distant planetoid. Taken from a distance of 422-429 million km, the images are not for scientific study, but for optical navigation between worlds. (From i09)

Those pictures are going to get a lot clearer and more wonderful as New Horizons approaches, if the results from Cassini and other planetary probes are any indiation. But based on what I’m seeing there, it may turn out that Pluto and Charon are not really planets at all, but nothing more than space junk, garbage that looks more like comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko. And if that ends up being the case, I’ll have to throw my visceral but irrational defense of Pluto’s planetary status onto the trash heap of disproven theories, as sad as it may be.

Our Solar System is a lot bigger now than it used to be. No one ever made mention of the Kuiper Belt or the Oort cloud. It was just us, although some scientists even back then were looking for the mysterious “Planet X” [1] which would help to explain certain orbital anomalies.


Image: NASA’s Solar System Exploration. Click through for the full interactive graphic, along with a lot of other wonderful information.

Some other really good stuff about space and stars and especially planets is found at Starts with a Bang!

In the end, better minds than mine have come to terms with advancing knowledge. A quote at Wikipedia’s article about Clyde Tombaugh is particularly comforting:

Tombaugh’s widow Patricia stated after the IAU’s decision that while Clyde may have been disappointed with the change since he had resisted attempts to remove Pluto’s planetary status in his lifetime, he would have accepted the decision now if he were alive. She noted that he “was a scientist. He would understand they had a real problem when they start finding several of these things flying around the place.”Hal Levison offered this perspective on Tombaugh’s place in history: “Clyde Tombaugh discovered the Kuiper Belt. That’s a helluva lot more interesting than the ninth planet.”

The Old Wolf has spoken.


[1] They’re still looking.

Rosetta: Captivated again.

I grew up in the space age.



I worried along with my parents about what it meant now that the “russkies” had launched Sputnik.


I sat glued to the television as the most momentous events in history took place, and as we equaled and surpassed the Russian space effort.


Apollo 8: Earthrise. ©Nasa


Apollos 15. ©Nasa

The space shuttle era brought triumph and tragedy and a sense of the mundane to space travel. NASA’s budget was cut, and cut, and cut again. America lost its fascination with space travel. There were no more Russians to beat, and people forgot about the amazing science and benefits that accrued to us as a result of the space effort.

Every now and then, however, there was a glimmer of excitement.

converted PNM file

The Cassini probe and others sent back breathtaking images of our outer planets, adding immensely to our knowledge of the nature of our solar system. Saturn was not the only ringed system: Jupiter, Uranus and Neptune had them too.


Voyager 1 crossed the heliopause and entered interstellar space on August 25, 2012. V’ger continues to provide the information.

On July 14 of next year, New Horizons will encounter Pluto[1], an event for which I wait with extreme anticipation.


And yesterday, the Rosetta space probe made its approach and inserted itself into orbit around comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko. I had insomnia anyway, so I watched some of the live feeds.


The comet imaged from 177 miles away. ©Nasa


A closeup of a smooth area on the main segment of the comet, taken from 80 miles away. Resolution: 8 feet per pixel. (The boulder in the middle is about 160 feet across). ©Nasa

What an astonishing accomplishment. The mathematics and engineering required to achieve this are exquisite and beyond my ken, but I admire and applaud all those who had a hand in bringing this miracle to pass (along with all the other milestones along the way.) I know someone personally who is intimately involved with the JPL, and she’s smart. So smart. My admiration for scientists knows no bounds.

Next month, if all goes well, a lander will anchor itself to the surface of the comet, and do amazing science as it rounds the sun. If it doesn’t get blown off. I’m on tenterhooks.


Mockup of the Philæ lander.

I go on record as saying that money expended on the science of space exploration is money well spent. The benefits are real and tangible as well as potential.


©Nasa. Click through for a copy of the full report.

Just a few of the many, many things that have developed out of our space exploration effort over the years:

  • Cell Phone Camera
  • Clean Energy Technology
  • Scratch-Resistant Lenses
  • Water Filtration and Purification
  • CAT Scans

And of course, Velcro™.

I’m not sure if technology will ever get us as a species to a new home. Terraforming Mars is still a dream, and escaping the Solar System to find another habitable planet among the stars is still the stuff of science fiction. But I’m open to surprises, for the benefit of generations yet unseen. In the meantime, I will rejoice in each new step toward the unknown that science can grace us with.

The Old Wolf has spoken.

[1] Still a planet. Always a planet.

Nine Planets Thumb