William Shatner had a severe case of space sadness. The “overview effect” was at play.


WILLIAM SHATNER FELT A GREAT DEPRESSION IN SPACE. Iframe src=’https://www.npr.org/player/embed/1130482740/1130490227’>IT WAS THE “OVERVIEW EFFECT” ‘width=100%’, ‘height=290’, ‘frameborder=0′, and’scrolling=no’ the embedded audio player for NPR Expand this picture Getty Images/Mario Tama

switch to caption Getty Images/Mario Tama Getty Images/Mario Tama The most well-known astronaut in the world is most likely William Shatner. He is obviously not an astronaut, though. He’s a performer. Since his role as Captain Kirk in the original Star Trek series, which began in 1966, the 91-year-old Canadian has been a cultural icon.

But William Shatner, a.k.a. Captain Kirk, did travel to space last year on a rocket operated by Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin company. Shatner’s latest memoir, Boldly Go, has insights of his experiences.

According to Shatner, “I was bawling.” I had no idea why I was sobbing. I had to go somewhere and sit down to reflect on what was wrong with me. I then became aware of my anguish.

SPACE Shatner didn’t foresee this, though he wasn’t sure what to expect. He had been eager to fly to space and had contemplated it for about 60 years, but he had not anticipated feeling depressed or going through “the strongest sentiments of grief” he had ever gone through.

What Shatner experienced is known as the “overview effect” Frank White, a space philosopher, first used the phrase in his book of the same name from 1987.

According to White, “the overview effect” is a cognitive and emotional change in a person’s awareness, consciousness, and sense of self when they view the Earth from space. They are far away and viewing the Earth in relation to the rest of the universe.

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switch to caption Getty Images/NASA Getty Images/NASA Shatner was particularly impressed by this situation.

It was the death that he observed in outer space and the lifeforce that he perceived emanating from the planet, described as blue, beige, and white, he claimed. And I understood that one represented death and the other life.

According to White, every individual who visits space has a “overview effect” that causes them to reevaluate their preconceived notions about people, the Earth, and/or the universe. Although each person’s overall effect is unique to them, some reactions are more frequent than others.

Shatner’s remark, according to White, is typical of the more than 40 astronauts he has spoken with. He said, “When they first see the Earth from space, people frequently cry.”

Shatner stated, “I sobbed for the Earth because I realized it’s dying.” It says in the dedication, “I dedicated my book, Boldly Go, to my great-grandchild, who is already three and soon will be three. They, those children, will reap what we have sowed in terms of the destruction of the Earth.”

ASTRONAUTS COMING BACK OFTEN HAVE A BETTER DISTAST FOR WAR Astronauts have a better appreciation for how valuable and vulnerable the Earth is after spending time in orbit. Many astronauts claim that although they were aware of climate change and global warming before they went to space, they became considerably more sensitive to the issue.

The most important lesson acquired by astronauts, according to White, was “the distinction between cerebral understanding and experiential knowledge.”

With all the reading and studying I’ve done, I saw the writhing, torturous death of Earth and we on it more clearly than I ever had, Shatner said.

It’s a little rock with an onion-skin atmosphere surrounding it. That is how delicate everything is. It’s very delicate. We are simply dangling; we are hanging on a thread.

Expand this picture Getty Images/Patrick T. Fallon/AFP
switch to caption Getty Images/Patrick T. Fallon/AFP Getty Images/Patrick T. Fallon/AFP Shatner continues, “We’re dangling together even if we’re just dangling.”
He lamented human disputes by saying, “We’re linked with one other.” We’re in a war, and it’s all so obviously foolish.

Like Shatner, many astronauts come back from space with a stronger belief in humanity’s interconnectedness. Because they have witnessed the reality of our condition, space travelers, in the words of White, return to our planet with “a stronger dislike for war and bloodshed, and a determination to do something to better life back on the surface.”

And even though the reality might not be pretty, a more global viewpoint will only help reunify our previously divided species. According to White, astronauts come back more eager than ever to contribute to the solution in order for humanity to one day live long and flourish.