Apollo 11 and the Overview Effect

Written by Frank White.

As of today, July 20 has been a special day for humanity for 43 years. It marks, of course, the moment that Apollo 11 landed on the moon. It marks the moment that humanity experienced what it would be like to become a multi-planet species. It marks a moment when human courage and ingenuity showed us what we could do if we worked together toward a transcendent goal.

Using computers with less power than we now have in our cell phones, three men maneuvered their way across 240,000 miles of free space and managed not only to land on the moon but also to take off again and return home.

In doing so, they realized a vision articulated by President John F. Kennedy eight years earlier to put a man on the moon and return him safely to Earth within the decade.

From the perspective of the Overview Effect, Apollo 11 built on the achievements of Apollo 8. It was during that earlier mission that the astronauts turned their cameras around and gave the world a breathtaking view of the whole Earth. And it was on that mission that the astronauts and the world saw Earthrise, a reversal of perspective in which the Earth hovered in the sky above the moon, rather than vice versa.

With Apollo 11, we began to understand what it would be like to experience the Overview Effect from the surface of another planet, to have Earthrise become as common as the rising of the moon for Earthlings. As Dan Curry points out in his excellent article about meeting the Apollo 11 astronauts, Neil Armstrong also realized that if he held up his thumb, he had the ability to blot out his view of the home planet, which contained all human beings but three and all of human history up until that moment.          

In Dan’s words, "Neil Armstrong’s comments made me realize that humanity’s forays into space are not just technical achievements, but are perceptual/cognitive achievements as well. Space exploration has allowed us as a species to see our home planet and ourselves in ways that were never before possible. The perspective from space reveals a precious jewel of a planet floating in the void… a place where unique circumstances allow it to support life and evolve self-aware species."

As we have recognized with the passage of time, the Apollo missions seemed to be about going to the moon, but they turned out to be far more about looking back at the Earth.

As shuttle astronaut Joe Allen said, "With all the arguments, pro and con, for going to the moon, no one suggested that we should do it to look at the Earth. But that may in fact be the most important reason."

The Apollo program and the pictures of the whole Earth that it gave to the world forever changed our view of the universe and ourselves. In a very real sense, all of us landed on the moon and looked back at the Earth. What a moment that was! It is no accident that the first Earth Day took place less than a year after Apollo 11. It is also no accident that we ask ourselves, even today, "If we can put a man on the moon, why can’t we end world hunger, stop fighting wars, and cure cancer?"

We should celebrate Apollo 11 every year, but the celebrations will change over time. Today, six people -- the crew of the International Space Station -- are marking the occasion at a distance of 230 miles from the Earth. Some day, perhaps soon, we can expect that a group of people will celebrate the landing 240,000 miles away, at Tranquility Base, on the moon, seeing the Earth and experiencing the Overview Effect.