Friday night topic: A change of perspective

I've been spending a fair chunk of the past few evenings watching the official video feed of the International Space Station. The feed went up a little over a week ago, and if you haven't checked it out already, I strongly recommended doing so now:

I've used the feed in combination with the ISS Tracker to figure out which parts of the world the station's cameras are pointed at. Surprisingly, though, I've found that the tracker actually detracts from the experience. It makes me think of nations and borders when, in reality, the most beautiful thing about viewing Earth from orbit is the absence of those names and boundaries.

Watching the feed, I was reminded of a famous quote by NASA astronaut Edgar Mitchell, who eloquently described his experience seeing our planet from the lunar surface:

You develop an instant global consciousness, a people orientation, an intense dissatisfaction with the state of the world, and a compulsion to do something about it. From out there on the moon, international politics look so petty. You want to grab a politician by the scruff of the neck and drag him a quarter of a million miles out and say, 'Look at that, you son of a bitch.'

Mitchell isn't alone. This "instant global consciousness" he described is a documented phenomenon called the overview effect, and a number of other astronauts have experienced it.

Most of us will probably never get the opportunity that Mitchell and his colleagues did. Thanks to our technology, however, images like the ISS feed, the "pale blue dot" photo, and this beautiful shot of an Earth-rise from Mars are widely accessible. They afford us an unprecedented ability to experience Earth—and, by extension, humanity—in its true context: as a small bubble of life in an unfathomable void.

I wonder if these images, as they become more pervasive, might make us a little wiser as a species in the long run. Will children watching the ISS feed today become better citizens and world leaders tomorrow because of it? Or will our age-old tribal and territorial instincts carry on unabated?


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