“Houston, we Have a Connection:” The Overview Effect

If you’ve ever flown in an airplane and looked down at the ground with a sense of wonder, you are getting a similar feeling to what astronauts experience when they look at Earth from space. Astronauts say that this emotion is very difficult to put into words—that perhaps there are no words for it. They say it’s life changing. They can see the interconnectedness of all living things. Astronauts who have experienced this awe have an appreciation for nature and become stronger in their belief that our planet should be cared for. 

Frank White, a space philosopher, calls this feeling “the overview effect.” In Episode 107 of “Houston, we Have a Podcast,” White describes how once, as he was flying across the country and looking down on the landscape, he experienced a sense of wonder and connectedness. He wanted to study this phenomenon more, and he eventually researched and published a book entitled The Overview Effect that describes what astronauts experience when they look back at Earth from space.  

“Earthrise” from 1968, view from the moon. Photo: NASA

The way astronauts experience the overview effect is very similar to the way many Iditarod volunteers and pilots see the race from the air. I wrote about this when I was on the trail, in my post called Iditarod from the Air: Big Ideas. I encouraged teachers and students to find overarching ideas that connect different content areas. Seeing the dog teams from the air amid the vastness of the Alaska winter landscape gave me a sense of how fragile and beautiful traveling on the Iditarod is. It also gave me an appreciation for how all the people involved are connected across the one thousand miles of the trail. 

White says, “the first thing people think about is that there are no borders or boundaries on earth…but we create maps that show borders and boundaries.” Seeing the Earth from space lets us see how artificial these boundaries are, in a similar way that we truly understand that the Iditarod Trail connects people from all over the world with remote villages and with one another. We also understand that this very thin, temporary track in the snow is the thread that connects all of us from the starting line to the finish line. 

Trail from the air. Photo: K. Newmyer

Astronauts also have a sense, from looking down on Earth from orbit, that “we are all part of this organic system,” says White. Astronaut Mike Foreman, who has been to space twice on Shuttle mission 123 and 129 and completed five spacewalks outside the space station, agrees. He told me that when he looked at our planet from space, he felt a longing for Earth because everyone he knew or loved was on that blue orb. He had a strong sense of connection looking down on Earth from above.  

White says, “We are really all in this together. Our fate is bound up with people that we may think are really different from them. We may have different religions, we may have different politics. But ultimately, we are connected. Totally connected.” I felt this way when I got to experience the Iditarod from various points on the trail—both on the ground and in flight. The Iditarod happens because more than 2,000 volunteers get together to prepare checkpoints, cook food, haul supplies, care for dogs, and ferry equipment. More than that, the volunteers come together and share meals, conversations, stories, and their love for the race. At the center of the Iditarod are, of course, the mushers and their beloved canine athletes, families, and human teams. Rounding out the connections are thousands, if not millions, of fans around the world. The Iditarod is an event that totally connects us. 

Iditarod volunteers from around the world get together for a ride in Nome, AK. Photo: Lena Haug

What do we do with this feeling? White says that is a question he is still examining, but that he has noticed how astronaut’s minds and actions are different after returning to Earth. I want to ask, during this year’s Iditarod, did you notice something with awe that you have never seen before? Did you feel a sense of wonder looking at videos and photos? If you watched the dogs up close, did you marvel at their incredible design that maximizes metabolism and allows them to thrive in cold weather? Did you delight at the number of amazing people and communities you got to interact with? White says, “You can imagine an astronaut from NASA having lived on the moon for six months, and been with international partners and everything, and seeing the Earth from a distance, and having that realization of why are we fighting each other? You know? Why are we in conflict? Why are we having wars? And they come back to Earth, and they start to share that consciousness, the way our astronauts are doing now.”  

Mushing excursion outside of Nome with The Dog Lot Kennel. Photo: K. Newmyer

Maybe the answer to the awe and excitement that you experienced–that I myself experienced–is to change our way of thinking and acting here in normal life just a bit. For example, I recognize what an incredible community I get to be part of every day when I go to school, so I am working to strengthen that community through kindness, connection, and purposeful work. Another way to put your overview effect into practice is to work for dog care in your own community, through shelters, dog parks, or education. Have a conversation with your students and families about how the sense of joy and excitement the Iditarod brings can be put into action.  

Skwentna checkpoint after all the teams have left. Photo: Iditarod Media

White says that with the commercialization of space flight, the overview effect will be available to more people. NASA’s Artemis moon program will allow astronauts to see the Earth as a tiny blue marble the way the Apollo astronauts did. Similarly, you can access the Iditarod through the web site or through Insider videos which will be up all year long. You can read musher memoirs of Iditarod races or pick up Jeff Schultz’s wonderful book, Chasing Dogs: My Adventures as the Official Photographer of Alaska’s Iditarod which has awe-inspiring photographs of the Iditarod Trail from above. 

The most important thing we can do is keep our own overview effect of the Iditarod alive and fresh in our minds in order to honor this great race. Share your reflections with me at emailtheteacher@iditarod.com.