for a full stage US President John F. Kennedy said in 1962 The ambition is to be the first country to put a man on the moon within a decade. it worked. A tremendous piece of technology and collaboration. Nowadays, space missions are popping up like mushrooms. It seems like every country (or billionaire) wants to be at the forefront of space. Why is this not possible when addressing the climate problem? In the “We’re Going to the Moon” series, NEMO Kennislink asks experts what we can learn from the moon mission. In this episode: The Overview Effect.
Christmas Eve, 1968. The Apollo 8 astronauts are the first astronauts in human history to orbit the Moon. As astronaut William Anders takes pictures of the lunar surface, his gaze suddenly falls on a point of light on the horizon: “Oh my God, look at that picture over there,” he exclaims to his traveling companions. Earth shines. Wow, this is beautiful! Like a blue ball filled with swirling clouds, Earth looms behind the lifeless gray of the Moon, enveloped in a jet-black universe. The landmark image is known as Earthrise.
Years later, Anders reflected on that moment: “I was almost immediately overwhelmed by the thought: We’ve reached the Moon, and yet the most important thing we see is our home planet, Earth.” Photo was one of the founders of the global environmental movement.
Earthrise, the famous photo taken by Apollo 8 astronaut William Anders in 1968.
He knows what Anders calls that Effect overview (overview effect), which is a realization many astronauts have when they see Earth from space. “It’s an overwhelming experience,” says Fimke van Houren, marketing researcher at VU University Amsterdam. “Astronauts gain a greater awareness of the beauty and fragility of the Earth, and a stronger sense of connection to nature — especially when they can see their country in full view of the Earth.”
Astronauts often dedicate themselves to sustainability, nature, and the climate after they return. Van Horen is investigating whether the outlook effect can also lead people on Earth to new insights and more sustainable behaviour. Imagine that everyone can experience this effect, then we will have a sustainable society soon.
Travel through virtual space
Pale blue dot: Earth is just a pixel in the sunbeam on the right. The Voyager 1 space probe imaged Earth here from a billion kilometers away.
It is impossible for everyone, just like the Apollo astronauts, to experience the effect of the gaze in space, which is unbearable for most people and, moreover, bad for the climate. A rocket flight releases at least 75 tons of carbon dioxide per passenger; This is more than one of the poorest billion people on Earth emit in a lifetime. If we sent all eight billion people on spaceflight, we would emit 600 gigatonnes of carbon dioxide2 Into the atmosphere: about sixteen times last year’s global emissions. So Van Houren is working with colleagues from VU University Amsterdam and the University of Amsterdam to see if you can also simulate the overview effect with a virtual spaceflight. She works with companies Circular Leadership and EarthScapeVR, which train people in sustainable leadership through a virtual reality (VR) experience.
The virtual reality video from EarthScapeVR is an hour long, but Van Horen and his colleagues use a seven- or 15-minute clipped video to systematically research. Test subjects wear virtual reality glasses and watch 180-degree video. The video begins with an image that looks like a sunrise, says Van Horen. “As a participant, you first see the Earth rising from behind the Moon. Then you travel slowly through space. First you see Europa up close, then you zoom out and orbit around the Earth. Then it gets dark over the Earth and you see lights, and finally you zoom out more and more, until you see the Earth as one Pale blue dots See”. She refers to another historic image taken in 1990 by the Voyager 1 space probe six billion kilometers from Earth. Our planet is just a speck of it, “a crust of dust floating in a sunbeam,” as the American astronomer Carl Sagan puts it.
More than just a BBC wildlife movie
After experiencing virtual reality, participants had the chance to win €25. They were asked how much they would like it and how much to donate to Natuurmonumenten. Participants who watched the short seven-minute virtual reality video donated as much as two control groups, who either solved word puzzles about space or watched a virtual reality video of stars in the universe without Earth. However, when participants watched the fifteen-minute virtual reality video, which also included music and a voiceover, people were more willing to donate to the nature organization than people in all the other groups, and they felt a stronger connection to nature.
This longer VR video looks like a compelling BBC nature documentary with the friendly voice of David Attenborough, but according to Van Horen, VR does more than that. “It’s like you’re standing there in that moment and really traveling through space. With VR glasses, you can look around 180 or 360 degrees, and feel like you’re with the world around you. Plus, space travel in itself is important. Only As we slowly move away from the Earth, we feel part of it. You begin to feel insignificant as a person.” The farther away from Earth, the greater the connection to nature, as a cosmic kind of homesickness.
Astronaut Andre Kuipers looks down at Earth from the International Space Station in April 2004.
Donations to Natuurmonumenten are nice, but the climate is not yet saved. The test subjects still ate the same amount of meat and dairy products in the seven days following the VR video. “The VR experience is too short and eating behavior is too complex to change behavior,” says Van Horen. Astronauts who experienced the effect of true overview indicated in interviews that after this experience they became more committed to the environment, for example by recycling more and saving energy. “But this may also be due to other experiments in space,” Van Horen notes. “You cannot establish a causal relationship with these interviews.”
“The real perception effect in space is undoubtedly much more influential, and there are additional factors at play,” she continues. “As an astronaut, for example, you can experience the moment with other astronauts; you talk about it with each other. In addition, an astronaut on the International Space Station orbits the Earth every hour and a half, and each new scene can enhance the overview effect.” .
Our very own André Kuipers saw from the International Space Station in 2004 how thin the atmosphere makes life on Earth possible, as if he could “knock it out”. Returning to Earth, he had a new mission: to show people how beautiful and fragile the Earth is. In the same year he became an ambassador for the World Wildlife Fund.
video: André Kuipers has now also set up a virtual spaceflight for elementary school students. The SpaceBuzz, a bus shaped like a rocket, visits schools across the Netherlands to teach children about Earth and the universe. Source: Youtube, Unity.NU.
We might expect a lot from virtual space travel to change our behaviour. However, Van Horen believes it is still too early for this skepticism. “We still have to figure out what aspects are critical to triggering behavior change. Astronauts who see wildfires from space react emotionally to what we humans do on Earth. That feeling can certainly trigger the virtual overview effect. It can make people more aware of our vulnerability “We really only have one Earth. It may not have an immediate effect, but it could have a bigger impact in the long run or if it’s done more often.”
In March 2012 André Kuipers captured this image of the Milky Way with Earth’s atmosphere in the foreground, as the thin layer that makes life possible on our planet.
More than sixty years ago, the Apollo astronauts not only wrote history by looking at the Moon, but also by literally looking down at Earth: in front of them the setting of adventure, behind them a safe but also vulnerable home. The Earthrise image from Apollo 8 helped launch the environmental movement. Now everyone can follow in the footsteps of the Apollo astronauts and JFK’s moon mission through virtual reality. We hope this leads to everyone wanting to be committed to sustainability, nature and climate, because as astronaut William Anders said on his way to the moon: Our planet is what matters most.
Also read other episodes of this series:
- Chancel, L, Piketty, T, Saez, E, and Suckman, J. (2023). World Inequality Report 2022accessed April 6, 2023.
- International Energy Agency (2023). carbon dioxide emissions in 2022accessed April 12, 2023.
- NASA (2023). International Space Station facts and figures. Accessed April 25, 2023.
- Ninky Placer (2022). Walking interview: André Kuipers. ANWB Champion, December 2022.
- TV Show (2006). to the moon. PBS broadcast July 13, 1999. Accessed April 25, 2023.
- Fosky, A.; (2020). Environmental significance of the outlook effect: environmental attitudes and behaviors of astronauts. Journal of Environmental Psychology 70: 101454.
- Wikipedia (2023). sunrise. Last updated April 22, 2023. Accessed April 25, 2023.
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