Suborbital spaceflight and the Overview Effect
by Jeff Foust
|White was optimistic yet estimated “it would be kind of hard to experience the Overview Effect on a suborbital flight.”|
That weighed on the mind of the person credited with popularizing the concept of the Overview Effect 35 years ago, Frank White (see “The Overview Effect at 25”, The Space Review, December 3, 2012). “A lot of people told me that it was impossible,” he said in a talk at the Next-Generation Suborbital Researchers Conference earlier this month in Colorado, recalling what they told him: “It’s too brief. It’s too close. You cannot experience the Overview Effect on a suborbital flight.”
White said that, before Blue Origin and Virgin Galactic started flying people, he was cautiously optimistic a suborbital flight could trigger the Overview Effect. That was based in part by comments from Alan Shepard on his Mercury suborbital flight in 1961, where he described the “astonishing view that I got” on that 15-minute trip, calling it “breathtaking.”
However, he said he had also come up with own formula for estimating the impact of the Overview Effect on a person: I = D × T + O, where the impact (I) was the product of the distance (D) and time (T) traveled, plus the “openness” (O) of an individual to the experience. For suborbital flight, D and T would be small, “and it would be kind of hard to experience the Overview Effect on a suborbital flight,” he acknowledged.
What changed his mind, and his formula, was an October 2021 New Shepard flight that included actor William Shatner (see “Black ugliness and the covering of blue: William Shatner’s suborbital flight to ‘death’”, The Space Review, October 18, 2021). After exiting the capsule, Shatner offered an extemporaneous, emotional account of his experience, contrasting the blue of the Earth with the black of space, comparing them to life and death.
“Along came William Shatner,” White said, replaying a clip of Shatner’s comments. “I had to change the formula.” He now describes the impact of the Overview Effect as D × T × O, providing a greater weight to the individual’s openness.
“Shatner was open, as you can tell. He was emotional,” he said. “It means that the Overview Effect is not just a cognitive shift, it’s an emotional shift.”
Since that flight, White has talked with five others who have flown on New Shepard. Those interviews, he argues, bolster his belief that a suborbital spaceflight is sufficient to trigger the Overview Effect, at least to someone open to the experience.
Among his interviewees was Dylan Taylor, with whom he talked just hours after Taylor’s flight in December 2021. “I know now why it is so transformational because it is so unique,” he said. “This whole notion of, can you experience the Overview Effect on suborbital? I’m here to tell you, yes, 100% yes.”
Taylor, in the interview clip that White showed in his talk, noted that people will experience the Overview Effect, or at least describe the experience, differently, which was clear from the other interviews White conducted. Sara Sabry, who became the first Egyptian in space on a New Shepard flight in August 2022, said the flight showed her the interconnectedness of Earth and space. “We’re just a part of a much bigger thing,” she said, a realization that she described as clicking into place because of the flight.
Katya Echazarreta, who was the first Mexican-born woman in space on a New Shepard flight in June 2022, said the experience hit her on her airline flight home, when she looked out the window and saw the same mountains she saw from a much higher altitude on the flight.
|“Shatner was open, as you can tell. He was emotional,” Whtie said. “It means that the Overview Effect is not just a cognitive shift, it’s an emotional shift.”|
“I started crying,” she said in her interview with White. “I didn’t know why. I wasn’t sad. I wasn’t necessarily feeling happiness in the way that we usually know it.” She stopped crying, only to resume when she looked out the window again. “That’s when I realized how much it had actually touched me without me realizing it.”
Chris Boshuizen, who was on the same flight as Shatner, had been prepared for the experience, based in part on his background as a co-founder of Earth imaging company Planet (see “For private space travelers, questions of vistas and titles”, The Space Review, November 8, 2021).
But in his interview with White, he said he was moved by the experience nonetheless. “My explorer gene was triggered. It definitely felt like something was awakened in me, which was a compulsion to explore further,” he recalled. “It feels like me being pulled out into space.”
The most poignant of White’s interviews he shared in his talk was with Glen de Vries, who was also on Shatner’s flight. White recalled he set up the interview with him a few weeks after the flight, but had forgotten about it when he woke up. “Some force, something caused me to look at my phone at five of eight, and it said, ‘Glen, eight o’clock,’” he recalled.
In that interview, de Vries described an “interconnectedness” he experienced during New Shepard’s ascent, as what he could see changed from “human-scale” objects like a cactus to agricultural fields, like what one would see from a plane, to patterns he had no experience with at the peak of the flight. “Going from a regular view to overview in a period of a few minutes was just mind-blowing.”
The interview took place just hours before de Vries was killed in an airplane crash in New Jersey. “That interview almost didn’t happen. I’m so grateful that it did,” White said. (The family of de Vries, he added, gave him permission to share that interview.)
Those interviews, White said, are proof that suborbital flight participants can experience the Overview Effect. “Case closed,” he declared.
He thinks that the brief nature of the flight can actually help trigger the experience. “This rapid ascent on a Blue Origin flight obviously has a huge impact, and it’s unique,” he said. “It helps to have an impact.” Like orbital flight, he said, suborbital travelers feel being drawn out into the universe, as Boshuizen described, as well as seeing the Earth as fragile.
|“This rapid ascent on a Blue Origin flight obviously has a huge impact, and it’s unique,” he said. “It helps to have an impact.”|
Some argued that Shatner’s experience, and his melodramatic recounting of life and death, might turn people off from going to space, but White disagreed. “He talks about it in a positive way,” he said of Shatner’s later book (see “Review: Boldly Go”, The Space Review, October 17, 2022). “It made him more environmentally aware.”
In a recent interview in Variety tied to the upcoming release of a documentary, Shatner recalled the grief he felt from the flight. “What am I grieving about? Oh shit, I’m grieving about the world, because I now know so much about what’s happening,” he said. “I saw the Earth and its beauty and its destruction. It’s going extinct.”
White said after his talk he hopes to interview more suborbital spaceflight participants, and also do follow-ups over time to see how individuals’ perceptions of the experience evolve.
White himself would like to experience the Overview Effect on a spaceflight. “I’d like to go on a Blue Origin flight. Can’t figure out how to do it, to be honest,” he said, but added he’s still holding out hope by not doing anything risky in the meantime. “I’m saving myself for spaceflight.”
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