Skip to site content

What Astronauts Can Teach All of Us About Big Picture

We’ve lost three U.S. astronauts in recent months.

Paul Weitz died on Oct. 22, 2017. He piloted Skylab II, which was the first manned mission to the first U.S. space station, in 1973. He was also the pilot for the first flight of the space shuttle Challenger in 1983.

Richard Gordon died on Nov. 6, 2017. He walked in space twice while orbiting Earth on Gemini 11. As Apollo 12’s command module pilot, he circled the moon while the other two astronauts landed on and traversed its surface.

John Young died on Jan 5, 2018. He was the first astronaut to go into space six times, twice each on Gemini and Apollo as well as on space shuttle missions. He walked on the moon in 1972 as commander of Apollo 16.

I admire astronauts. I also envy them.

They’ve experienced something that few people have. They’ve left Earth and gone into space. They’ve also been granted a rare perspective; they’ve looked at Earth from space rather than looking at space from Earth.

I think the thing I envy most is their experience of seeing Earth whole rather than in parts.

I wish we all could develop that perspective. I especially wish we could learn to see beyond our little part and realize that it’s connected to all the other parts.

The term “overview effect” – a term coined by Frank White in his book by the same name – names this unique experience of astronauts.

Seeing Earth from space, they are struck by the beauty, the wholeness and the fragility of this blue marble as it hangs in the blackness.

We may never go into space (I still harbor some hopes of doing so), but our world would benefit if more of us could develop something like an overview effect.

It would be helpful if we could see our planet more as one world rather than as separate entities. Maybe that way we’d understand that we’re all in this together.

Frank Borman is still with us. He was the commander of Apollo 8, which was the first spacecraft to orbit the moon (I remember the crew reading Genesis 1 on Christmas Eve). Two quotes from him get at what I’m trying to say.

Borman said in a Dec. 23, 1968, Newsweek magazine article, “When you’re finally up at the moon looking back on earth, all those differences and nationalistic traits are pretty well going to blend, and you’re going to get a concept that maybe this really is one world and why … can’t we learn to live together like decent people.”

“Why can’t we learn to live together like decent people” is a good question. I suppose one answer is that we’re not decent people. But I refuse to accept that.

“The view of the Earth from the Moon fascinated me – a small disk, 240,000 miles away. It was hard to think that that little thing held so many problems, so many frustrations. Raging nationalistic interests, famines, wars, pestilence don’t show from that distance,” Borman also said in a Jan. 17, 1969, “Life” magazine interview.

We sure can see them from down here, can’t we?

I believe that one solution to all of our problems is for more of us to come to experience the overview effect. Let’s try to see the world and its people as one.

To paraphrase another astronaut, that might be the most important giant leap humankind could ever make.

And once we make it, we can start taking the small steps toward making things better.

Michael Ruffin is curriculum editor with Smyth & Helwys Publishing in Macon, Georgia. A version of this column first appeared on his blog, On the Jericho Road, and is used with permission. You can follow him on Twitter @ruffinmichael.