Sally Ride: Beauty of the Earth Is Only Half of It

Written by David Beaver.

Even as we honor her life and achievements, Sally Ride is still breaking new ground.  In the July issue of Air and Space Magazine, apparently written shortly before her passing, she gave one of the most detailed and evocative statements of the experience of the Overview Effect I have read. 

She begins by repeating one of the more frequent astronaut reports about the questions people ask of them: 

“Everyone I've met has a glittering, if vague, mental image of space travel. And naturally enough, people want to hear about it from an astronaut: “How did it feel?” “What did it look like?” “Were you scared?” Sometimes, the questions come from reporters, their pens poised and their recorders silently sucking in the words; sometimes, it’s wide-eyed, 10-year-old girls who want answers. I find a way to answer all of them, but it’s not easy...”

Many astronauts have stated that it’s not easy to describe the direct experience of seeing the Earth from and in space, and the unusual and often profound effect it has on them. 

However, to those of us vitally interested in the nature and impact of space travel on the traveler and the world that their reports influence, her words, “a glittering, if vague, mental image of space travel,” have special significance. 

Even before describing what she saw, she clearly wanted to disabuse her readers that her description would allow them to accurately imagine her experience:

“Imagine trying to describe an airplane ride to someone who has never flown. An articulate traveler could describe the sights but would find it much harder to explain the difference in perspective provided by the new view from a greater distance, along with the feelings, impressions, and insights that go with that new perspective. And the difference is enormous…”

In one particularly vivid description, the critical words might pass unnoticed: 

“Mountain ranges, volcanoes, and river deltas appeared in salt-and-flour relief, all leading me to assume the role of a novice geologist. In such moments, it was easy to imagine the dynamic upheavals that created jutting mountain ranges and the internal wrenching that created rifts and seas. I also became an instant believer in plate tectonics; India really is crashing into Asia, and Saudi Arabia and Egypt really are pulling apart, making the Red Sea wider. Even though their respective motion is really no more than mere inches a year, the view from overhead makes theory come alive.”

“…makes theory come alive.”  In many ways, this is a touchstone of the Overview Effect.  It makes theory come alive.  Over and over again, astronauts have said that their direct experience of seeing the Earth as a planet in space only seldom reveled new facts.  Rather it made those facts (and theories) become real to them in an emotional and experiential way. This is important in understanding the Effect, and realizing why the advent of large-scale commercial space travel will have a profound impact on society. As more people experience the space environment, rather than hearing about it, more of them will have their worldview transformed.  

It should be noted that like a number of astronauts, Ride held a PhD (in physics) and was well acquainted with the theory and facts that were suddenly striking her with a visceral reality. Dr. Ride echoed many other astronauts when she described the enhancement of environmental awareness that so often accompanies their view of the Earth in space: 

“Some of civilization's more unfortunate effects on the environment are also evident from orbit. Oil slicks glisten on the surface of the Persian Gulf, patches of pollution-damaged trees dot the forests of central Europe. Some cities look out of focus, and their colors muted, when viewed through a pollutant haze. Not surprisingly, the effects are more noticeable than they were the decade before.”

In addition to the direct impact of personal perception, Dr. Ride notes one aspect of what Frank White has termed the “Technological Overview Effect,” or the impact of Earth and space observation and measurement instruments employed from space: 

“Observations and photographs by astronauts have contributed to the understanding of ocean dynamics. For example, the energy balance in the oceans is better understood as a result of discoveries [from orbit]... If a scientist wants to study features on this scale, it’s much easier to do from orbit than from a boat.”

Dr. Ride’s next Overview Effect-tinged statement needs a little context.  The vast majority of the published pictures of the Earth are taken from the “day side.”  Certainly these include the iconic shots by Apollo crews; especially Earthrise (the shot of the Earth over the horizon of the Moon) and the Blue Marble, (the pictures of the whole earth – considered the most reproduced pictures in photographic history).  These have given rise to frequent descriptions of the Earth as the “Blue Planet” and “Blue Marble.” 

But the night side view is much different.  Curiously, these night side views have not had nearly the same amount of exposure, until very recently.  In the past few years, astronauts have been sending pictures by email and “tweets” to those on the ground; even shooting videos.  When you consider the focus of the NASA program of Earth and atmospheric observation, daylight shots are an obvious choice.  But when considered from the personal experience of the astronauts, it’s a different matter.  Listen to Sally Ride: 

“Most of the Earth’s surface is covered with water, and at first glance it all looks the same: blue. But…part of every orbit takes us to the dark side of the planet. In space, night is very, very black—but that doesn't mean there’s nothing to look at. The lights of cities sparkle; on nights when there was no moon, it was difficult for me to tell the Earth from the sky—the twinkling lights could be stars or they could be small cities.”

This is the Overview Effect.  Perhaps Dr. Ride doesn’t use this specific term, but she is describing a vast variety of the experiences reported by the astronauts.  Not just the thrill of being an astronaut and experiencing zero gravity, but the worldview changing experience of direct perception and personal experience.  As astronaut James Irwin said so succinctly, “Seeing this has to change a man [or woman!].”

And the very difference in perspective, viewing the Earth and sky from above rather than below, yields visual experiences that are unexpected and emotionally delightful, lending another layer to the rich experience of the “Overview Effect”: 

“When the moon is full, it casts an eerie light on the Earth. In its light, we see ghostly clouds and bright reflections on the water. One night, the Mississippi River flashed into view, and because of our viewing angle and orbital path, the reflected moonlight seemed to flow downstream—as if Huck Finn had tied a candle to his raft.”

“Of all the sights from orbit, the most spectacular may be the magnificent displays of lightning that ignite the clouds at night. On Earth, we see lightning from below the clouds; in orbit, we see it from above. Bolts of lightning are diffused by the clouds into bursting balls of light. Sometimes, when a storm extends hundreds of miles, it looks like a transcontinental brigade is tossing fireworks from cloud to cloud.”

Often mentioned by astronauts are the rapidly repeating sunrises seen as they orbit the Earth every 90 minutes.  But again, Dr. Ride declines to relate it to the simple multiple opportunities to see what often passes by us on Earth: 

Significantly, she concludes, not with a paean to the simplistic “beauty of the Earth” but with the extraordinary difference between both the astronauts’ pictures and her own descriptions: 

“I really can't describe a sunrise in orbit. The drama set against the black backdrop of space and the magic of the materializing colors can't be captured in an astronomer's equations or an astronaut's photographs…”

“I once heard someone (not an astronaut) suggest that it’s possible to imagine what spaceflight is like by simply extrapolating from the sensations you experience on an airplane. All you have to do, he said, is mentally raise the airplane 200 miles, mentally eliminate the air noise and the turbulence, and you get an accurate mental picture of a trip in the space shuttle.

“Not true. And while it’s natural to try to liken space flight to familiar experiences, it can’t be brought ‘down to Earth.’ The environment is different; the perspective is different. Part of the fascination with space travel is the element of the unknown—the conviction that it’s different from Earthbound experiences.”

“It is.”