Earth from Another Perspective


The Apollo missions started as a dream as old as humanity: landing on the Moon and returning safely to Earth. Astronauts went on these missions with a bunch of goals mainly linked to space science; no one expected there was a life-changing experience awaiting them in space. An experience that would urge them to change their perspective of life on Earth, and lead them to seek fulfilling astronomy and social goals as a carefully integrated whole.

Apollo 8 was the start, when its crew—James Lovell, William Anders, and Frank Borman—went where no human being had been before; they were not prepared for the striking vision of Earth glowing blue and green above a barren lunar surface. This experience was unique and made them see Earth from a different perspective; after the flight, William Anders said “I think we went to the Moon to explore the Moon, and what we did on Apollo 8 was we really explored the Earth”.

That is one small step for a man; one giant leap for mankind.”
Neil Armstrong

This exploration echoed deep inside, causing a mind shift called “Overview Effect”, which was experienced by many astronauts afterwards. This concept can be described as a cognitive shift in awareness caused by viewing the Earth from outer space and experiencing the reality of Earth in space. To see this tiny, fragile ball hanging in the void, shielded and nourished by a paper-thin atmosphere. That increased sensitivity to their place in the universe and acted as an interconnected euphoria with a striking tendency to focus on the unity of the planet and humankind.

This shift in awareness was described by Michael Collins (Apollo 11) as follows: “The thing that really surprised me was that Earth projected an air of fragility. And why? I do not know; I do not know to this day. I had a feeling it is tiny, it is shiny, it is beautiful, it is home, and it is fragile”. While Rusty Schweickart (Apollo 9) described it as a feeling that the whole universe was profoundly connected. “When you go around the Earth in an hour-and-a-half, you begin to recognize that your identity is with that whole thing. That makes a change… it comes through to you so powerfully that you are the sensing element for Man.”

Edgar Mitchell (Apollo 14) described it as a sensation that gave him a profound sense of connectedness, with a feeling of bliss and timelessness. He was overwhelmed by the experience as he became profoundly aware that each and every atom in the universe was connected in some way; all humans, animals, and systems were a part of the same thing, a synergistic whole. From their position in space, distant places on Earth appeared inseparably close, all borders that once rendered division vanished, and humanity appeared joined together.

Perhaps, forming such perspective about Earth was not that important for space science; however, astronauts on these missions were directly affected and impressed by the possibility of vanishing national boundaries and ending conflicts that divide people for political, economic, or any other reasons. It has inflamed their desire to speak out the possibility of bridging the gap between people for a better life with no poverty, hunger, diseases, etc.

We went up as technicians, and we came down as humanitarians.”
Edgar Mitchell

In short, this experience was a turning point and a catalyst for change in self-awareness and social experience for astronauts. The effect of this cognitive shift had not faded from their minds and it opened their eyes to possibilities for a better world by using the tools we already have to enhance our life.


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The original article was published in SCIplanet, Spring 2020 issue "Dualities of Life: The Earth and The Sky".

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