EDITOR’S NOTE: On Saturday, Jake Garn, a former U.S. senator and astronaut, will receive the Sutherland Institute’s New Birth of Freedom Award at the organization’s annual gala. In 2015, he spoke to the Deseret News about how going to outer space changed his life.
SALT LAKE CITY — Writing in Medium about a new image of Earth released July 20 by NASA scientists and dubbed the "new Blue Marble," astronaut Scott Kelly said, "There's something remarkable about a single snapshot of Earth — an intact view of our planet in its entirety, hanging in space."
There's also something spiritual about it, noted Andrew Newberg, a neuroscientist at Thomas Jefferson University and adjunct assistant professor of religious studies at the University of Pennsylvania.
"Sometimes a photo by itself is enough to change people," helping them recognize the "deep interconnectedness of all things," he said.
In the 43 years since the original "Blue Marble" gave non-astronauts the opportunity to view Earth from outer space, images of our home planet have become ubiquitous. And yet, as the latest photo illustrates, the experience remains awe-inspiring, leading people to ponder their place in the universe.
Newberg works to harness these kind of reflections in his work with The Overview Institute, an organization centered on improving people's relationships to each other by capitalizing on the power of outer space. The institute is named after a theory called "the overview effect," which posits that space travel fundamentally shifts how an astronaut perceives life on Earth.
By pressing people to consider the spiritual questions that arise from viewing their planet in its entirety, Newberg believes the world can become a better place to live.
"Spirituality gives people a new perspective on the world," he said. "Spiritual experiences create a sense of connectedness, a oneness, a sense of all things coming together. That's a lot like the overview effect."
Outer space and spirituality
Newberg spent one of his summers during college working at the Kennedy Space Center, where he got to witness the impact of space travel firsthand.
"There was a very clear difference (between) people who had been in space and people who hadn't," he said, noting that the presence of those who had travelled to space was "incredible and very powerful."
Jake Garn, a retired U.S. senator and Navy pilot, experienced this transformation firsthand, after orbiting the Earth aboard the space shuttle Discovery in 1985.
"It's almost impossible to explain to people what it's like to look back (toward Earth) and see the entire planet," said Garn, 82.
Like other astronauts before and after him, Garn refers to his journey as a kind of cosmic wake-up call, helping him let go of the petty concerns that can consume human life.
"It was a life-changing experience," in both spiritual and professional ways, he said.
As Newberg continued his education, he had astronauts like Garn in the back of his mind. Through his research into the neuroscience of spirituality, he became interested in the overview effect, eventually helping to found the Overview Institute.
The organization recently helped release the short film "Overview," which includes insights from five astronauts, as well as commentators from the scientific community. Participants share how seeing the Earth evokes awe, leading people to prioritize community-building over conflict and care for the Earth over individual desires.
For example, astronaut Ron Garan, who appears in "Overview," founded the organization Fragile Oasis after he returned to Earth from outer space, using his experience to inspire others to take part in humanitarian projects. People can submit their plans to improve the education, energy, health, environment or other aspects of their community, and Fragile Oasis helps projects find funding and support.
Few people will have the opportunity to actually see the Earth from outer space, but philosophers have written in the past that seeing just an image of the whole Earth can inspire the same kind of spiritual shift described by Garn and Newberg.
"The sight of an incomparably lonely living Earth … produced a felt experience of a planet so eccentric, so exceptional, that it became the only thing worth attending to in the first place," wrote Benjamin Lazier in his essay, "Earthrise, or the Globalization of the World Picture."
This emotional and spiritual impact helps explain humanity's ongoing fixation with outer space, he said, noting how images of Earth regularly appear on "T-shirts and tote bags, cartoons and coffee cups."
The relationship between humanity and pictures of Earth from outer space is fascinating enough to inspire art exhibits, such as "Out There: An existential crisis of intergalactic proportions," hosted by Columbia College in the fall of 2013.
"Everyone was really intrigued," said Kaitlin Olivero, who curated the exhibit and now works as the coordinator of special projects for the Toledo Museum of Art. With their pieces, "artists worked through their feelings about being connected with the galaxies, the stars and the rest of the human race."
One man submitted photos of leftover whiskey in a glass, because, viewed from a certain angle, the liquid looked celestial. Another sprinkled salt onto black photo paper, creating a galaxy of his own.
"They used everyday, earth-bound objects, but looked at them through a different lens," Olivero said.
Even simple acts like creating or admiring this kind of art are valuable, because, ultimately, the more people who feel or understand the overview effect, the better, Newberg said. By recognizing how small we are in the scheme of the universe, "we can break down boundaries and connect people in a global, integrated way."
Garn echoed his assessment, noting that his own life is a testament to the power of understanding yourself as just one small part of an incredibly complex system.
"We're all a tiny speck of dust, a grain of sand, but we're so preoccupied with artificial differences like languages and race," he said. "We need to remember we're all children of God traveling on spaceship Earth together."
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