Increasingly, advocates of space exploration believe leaving the planet is the natural next step of human evolution. They hope this will lead to a shift in human consciousness from an earth-centered frame of reference to one centered on the solar system and, eventually, the entire galaxy.
It has been argued that we can’t just focus on the technology of space travel, without developing a supportive philosophy as well. Space travel is not solely a hard technical science, but involves mental, emotional and even spiritual aspects of what it means to be human.
Well over 30 astronauts and cosmonauts have described a strange, nirvana-like phenomenon that can occur suddenly during space travel, which is collectively referred to as the “Overview Effect”, which has broadened their own understanding of our connection to space.
Former astronaut Ed Mitchell piloted Apollo 14’s Lunar Module down to the Fra Mauro region of the Moon. After their objectives were met, he and Cdr. Alan Shepard got back on the shuttle for the “bus” ride home.
So there he was rocketing through space between the Earth and the Moon when something very odd happened…
Mitchell says at first he was just bored. “We were just systems engineers on a perfectly functioning spacecraft.” With nothing to do he looked out the window. The Command Module was pointing “up” – which is to say perpendicular to the plane of the Solar System – and spinning slowly, about once every two minutes. It’s called “Barbecue Mode” as the craft spins to evenly heat the vehicle. Ed was floating as he watched the Earth, Moon, Sun and stars pan by.
And then, without warning: a feeing of bliss, timelessness, and connectedness began to overwhelm him. He instantly and profoundly felt the understanding of his constituent atoms as having been born in the fires of ancient supernovas. He saw Earth and it’s people along with it’s other species and systems as a unified synergistic whole. The feeling that rushed over him was a sense of interconnected euphoria.
He was not the first—nor the last—to have this specific epiphany, the sense that everything is connected.
Rusty Schweikart experienced it back on March 6th 1969 during a spacewalk outside his Apollo 9 vehicle: “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’re the sensing element for Man.”
20 years ago, author Frank White collected the observations of 30 astronauts and cosmonauts about this specific psychological shift that gave its recipients a broader perspective on the connectedness of matter. Recently, in a DC hotel across the street from the Pentagon, White discussed ways of sharing the Overview Effect with humanity.
Scientists, authors, astronauts, musicians, technologists, space-tourist adventurers, humanists, and an assortment of geeks came together to collaborate on a strategy to share the message. Their mission is to maximize opportunities for us Earth-dwellers to have our own individual Overview experience. Their strategy is to use art, science, mass media, music, environmental awareness, personal networking and the Internet to help non-space travelers to at least understand and possibly even experience the Effect.
It almost sounds like religion, but its “preachers” believe the event is based in science. After decades of studying this, Ed Mitchell believes that the feeling of “oneness” with the Universe that he and others have experienced is a consequence of quantum physics. Andy Newberg, a neuroscientist/physician with a background in space medicine, is learning how to identify the markers of someone who has had the experience. “You can often tell when you’re with someone who has flown in space,” he says, “It’s palpable.” Andy scans brains for a living: praying nuns, transcendental mediators, and others in the act of focused states.
Newberg can pinpoint regions in subjects’ gray matter that correlate to these circumstances. Newberg is seriously looking at how to fly equipment that could study—in action—the brain functions of space travelers. If this Overview Effect is a real, physiological phenomenon—he wants to watch it happen.
Newberg’s first test subject will not be a paid astronaut, but rather a paying space tourist: Reda Andersen slated to fly with Rocketplane Kistler says, “It would be criminal NOT to study the first of us (space adventure travelers).”
Maybe it’s much ado about nothing, or maybe it’s something more. Perhaps as space travel becomes more mainstream we’ll have the opportunity to understand more about ourselves, the cosmos, and our relationship to rest of the universe.
Posted by Rebecca Sato