Fragile Oasis

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The Overview Effect and Cognitive Dissonance

When a delusional killer shot Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords during a campaign event in Tucson, Arizona last year, her husband’s twin brother, Scott Kelly, was commanding a mission on the International Space Station. When asked about the incident by the news media, he said something to the effect that the Earth looked beautiful and serene from orbit, but it was “not like that” on the surface.

This is a classic “Overview Effect” statement by an astronaut. Since human beings first left the Earth in 1961, astronauts and cosmonauts have been talking about their experiences of seeing the home planet from space and in space. They say that there are no borders or boundaries on the Earth, except those that we create in our own minds or those that we mark on the ground with fences and barriers. They also say that the Earth is like a beautiful, fragile oasis in the vast darkness of the universe.

The International Space Station over the Earth, photographed by European Space Agency astronaut Paolo Nespoli from the Soyuz spacecraft taking him back to our planet, May 23, 2011.

Many also realize there is a stark contrast between the view from a distance and a closer view. In 1985, Jake Garn, senator from Utah, was one of two politicians who flew on the space shuttle. When I interviewed him for my book, The Overview Effect, he said:

The other intense feeling is that, along with the great beauty, you also have great feelings of sadness…How sad, because certainly we have the capacity to grow enough food to take care of all of God’s children. We have the capacity to grow enough food that nobody needs to go hungry, so I sat there and questioned, “Why, why does this have to be?”

As I have come to know the astronauts and bloggernauts of Fragile Oasis, I have seen increasing evidence of this powerful dichotomy between what we see from just a few hundred miles away from the planet and what we experience when we are on the ground.

I believe that the difference between how the planet appears from orbit and the moon and how it appears on the surface has created a form of collective “cognitive dissonance” in our species. For half-a-century, we have lived with the experience of who we really are and where we are in the universe, as contrasted with our daily behavior. We are one species with one destiny, part of the whole system we call Earth. However, our behavior is that of several billion parts, often in conflict with one another.

To some extent, this is discouraging, but there are positive signs when we consider the definition of cognitive dissonance. According to changingminds.org, it is “…the feeling of uncomfortable tension which comes from holding two conflicting thoughts in the mind at the same time.” According to the same source, cognitive dissonance can be a great motivator, because it is stressful to have this tension continue, so we have to change our behavior or justify our behavior by changing the cognition (or adding new ones).

In the case of the Overview Effect, it will be difficult to “change the cognition,” which has been experienced by so many space travelers and even by surface dwellers who have seen pictures or videos of the Earth from a distance. It is hard to suggest that the serene loveliness of our planet is not a reality. I hope that we will embrace this reality and our behavior will continue to change so that we will become an increasingly peaceful and ecologically aware species, especially as more people experience the Overview Effect.

The existence of Fragile Oasis and initiatives like Unity Node represents a testament to what can happen when even one person experiences the Overview Effect, or orbital perspective. In the words of Ron Garan, describing his experience of looking at the Earth during a spacewalk:

"It was very moving to see the beauty of the planet we’ve been given. But as I looked down at this indescribably beautiful fragile oasis, this island that has been given to us and has protected all life from the harshness of space, I couldn’t help thinking of the inequity that exists.I couldn’t help but think of the people who don’t have clean water to drink, enough food to eat, of the social injustice, conflict, and poverty that exist. The stark contrast between the beauty of our planet and the unfortunate realities of life for many of its inhabitants reaffirmed the belief I share with so many. Each and every one of us on this planet has the responsibility to leave it a little better than we found it."

Somalia, at the coast near Mogadishu, photographed from the International Space Station February 1, 2012.

Ron, along with Nicole Stott and other astronauts, has not only talked the talk, he has walked the walk by founding Fragile Oasis, recruited a band of Bloggernauts to write about the orbital perspective, and catalyzed a number of projects aimed at reducing the dissonance. This is the beginning of something more than change; this is transformation of the highest order. And it truly is only the beginning, as a much larger wave of change is about to take place.

Some 500 human beings have traveled beyond the Earth’s atmosphere in the past 50 years, an average of 10 per year. Soon, commercial spacecraft could be ferrying hundreds of people on suborbital flights. High quality simulations of the experience are also becoming available and will be disseminated on a mass basis.

Inevitably, a quantitative change in the number of people directly experiencing the Overview Effect will create a qualitative change that will be channeled into reducing the tension caused by the current state of cognitive dissonance. For half a century, we have been “ignoring the cognition,” but that may not last much longer, and future astronauts will, we hope, no longer need to make statements like that which was uttered by Scott Kelly when his sister-in-law was shot.

Editor's note: A version of this posting was presented as part of the Kepler Space Institute track at the International Space Development Conference in May 2011.