What is the Overview Effect? William Shatner reveals why he was an emotional wreck after space trip

What is the Overview Effect? William Shatner reveals why he was an emotional wreck after space trip
William Shatner, who played Captain Kirk in 'Star Trek', was the oldest person to go into space (Mario Tama/Getty Images)

William Shatner recalled how he first turned down the opportunity for space travel and revealed the real reason behind the refusal. "I said: 'No.' I turned it down not for lack of curiosity, or because I was afraid. Well, I was afraid, but that wasn't my primary reason. I turned it down because I'm an actor, not an astronaut," Shatner said, as per Dailymail. The 91-year-old Canadian actor who played Captain Kirk in 'Star Trek' became the oldest person to go into space on October 13, 2021, when he flew with Blue Origin from West Texas. 

Shatner blasted off in a New Shepard spacecraft designed by Jeff Bezos' rocket company, Blue Origin, which was used to launch Bezos himself in the summer of last year. Having always been a 'Star Trek' fan, Bezos invited Shatner on board as a complimentary guest. He was accompanied by three crewmates: Chris Boshuizen, cofounder of satellite company Planet Labs, Glen de Vries, Blue Origin's vice president of mission and flight operations, and Audrey Powers, cofounder of Planet Labs. The 'Star Trek' star also recalled the 'Overview Effect' he felt upon landing, which made him aware of the planet's vulnerability. 


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He described his magnificent journey to space in his book titled 'Boldly Go: Reflections on a Life of Awe and Wonder.' 

"The countdown began. Then with noise, fire and fury, we lifted off and I could see Earth disappearing. As we ascended, I was at once aware of the pressure. Gravitational forces – the Gs – pulling at me. There was an instrument that told us how much we were experiencing. At two Gs, I tried to raise my arm and could barely do so. At three Gs, I felt my face being pushed right back into my head and the seat behind. I don't know how much more of this I can take, I thought. Will I pass out? Will my face melt into a pile of mush? How many Gs can my 90-year-old body handle? And then, suddenly… relief. No Gs. Zero. Weightlessness. We were floating," he wrote.

Once outside the Karman line - the boundary between Earth's atmosphere and space, they removed their safety belts, and "started to float around as the other people immediately started doing somersaults and enjoying the weightlessness," the book states. "But I had no interest in taking part. I needed and wanted to get to the window as soon as I could to see what was outside. I stared down at where we had come from while pressing my face against the glass. The slender, blue-tinged layer of oxygen surrounding Earth had a breach that I could tell was caused by our spacecraft."

"All I saw was death," he would reveal later about the trip. The book contains similar grim anecdotes about his experience bolting above the Earth's atmosphere aboard a real-life rocket. "It was unlike any blackness you can see or feel on Earth. It was deep, enveloping, all-encompassing. I turned back toward the light of home. I could see the curvature of Earth, the beige of the desert, the white of the clouds and the blue of the sky. It was life. Nurturing, sustaining, life. Mother Earth. Gaia. And I was leaving her," he wrote in the book.

He also refers to the 1997 sci-fi film 'Contact', where Jodie Foster's character looks at the cosmos and says, "They should've sent a poet." "I had a different experience," Shatner writes. "Because I discovered that the beauty isn't out there, it's down here, with all of us. Leaving that behind made my connection to our tiny planet even more profound."

The experience prompted him to reflect on ecological issues as well. "I was so thoroughly unprepared for this experience, I was overcome with the strongest feelings of grief I have ever encountered. The contrast between the vicious coldness of space and the warm nurturing of Earth below filled me with overwhelming sadness. Every day, we are confronted with the knowledge of further destruction of Earth at our hands: the extinction of animal species, of flora and fauna… things that took five billion years to evolve, and suddenly we will never see them again because of the interference of mankind. It filled me with dread," the book notes.

He goes on to say that traveling to space was more like a funeral than a celebration. "My trip to space was supposed to be a celebration. Instead, it felt like a funeral. Then, almost without warning, it was time for the return journey. I struggled back into my seat and we were off. But by the time we reached around 3Gs once again, I was not conscious of my bones feeling like iron or my face turning to mush. I was consumed with sadness. The pod landed successfully. We had been gone for a mere ten minutes 17 seconds. One by one, we all made our way out of the capsule and back to terra firma. And from some wellspring of emotion I hadn't realized was there, I began to cry uncontrollably, like being told someone you love has died. I was flooded with grief, unable to talk, and barely able to function."

While others were celebrating the success, Shatner felt the opposite. "I learned later that I was not alone in this feeling, he adds. "It is called the Overview Effect, and is not uncommon among astronauts, including Yuri Gagarin, Michael Collins, Sally Ride, and many others."

Shatner emphasizes that a trip to space can completely alter how one perceives the world. "A sense of the fragility of the planet takes hold in an instinctual, unfathomable way when someone journeys to space and observes Earth from orbit. It has the power to alter our perspective of the world, but it may also tilt your worldview completely," he reveals. "It amplified in me the influence of our lovely, enigmatic collective human interconnectedness. Bezos interviewed me when he stopped by with a camera team. I must have sounded absurd as I struggled to process my feelings. I told him, "I hope I never get over this," I'll remember that feeling for the rest of my life."

'Boldly Go', which Shatner co-wrote with TV and film writer Joshua Brandon, is published by Atria Books. The book had its release on November 10, 2021.

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