To boldly go where no man has gone ...
An Ode to Captain Kirk
Thanks to virtual reality, you don’t necessarily have to book discount flights to space in order to experience the Overview Effect.
This UFO thing’s got some legs going on, man — I can’t even keep up anymore:
Congress employs the new Intelligence Authorization Act spending bill to impose quarterly reports and accountability on the defense establishment’s concealed UFO intel. Black Vaulter John Greenewald gets a FOIA reply from the National Archives saying the Obama Presidential Library might be sitting on 3,440 pages and 26,271 electronic files on You Know What. Canada responds to a Vice News FOIA by releasing 20 years worth of UFO papers, some 500 cases deep. Aussie journo Ross Coulthart directs our attention to an interview with the retired director of Directorate-General for External Security — France’s CIA counterpart — who claims UAP have been clocked underwater at the speed of sound, or a mile in less than five seconds.
It all serves as a reminder that many of us aren’t anywhere close to being prepared for whatever comes next. The thought took me back to last October, when William Shatner stepped out of the Blue Origin capsule and into the Texas desert following his five-minute rendezvous with zero gravity. Among those tuning in from afar was Frank White, in Boston, who wanted to see how well his equation held up.
Remembering how John Glenn at age 77 hurled his beans after the space shuttle landed in 1998, I held my breath. However, at 90, Shatner looked no worse for wear. A camera crew closed in.
“Not only is it different from what you thought …” Shatner began, sentence fragments competing with the small-crowd revelry unfolding around him. “You know what my – the impression that I have … I never expected to have … You’re just shooting up … into the blue sky …”
As corks popped and champagne flowed, Blue Origin founder Jeff Bezos broke from Shatner’s stream of consciousness and beckoned for one of the ground-crew team, asking for a splash. “You want a little of this?” the jillionaire asked the erstwhile commander of the Starship Enterprise. Shatner waved it off, backed away and fidgeted with his ear. He shoved his hands into his pockets and turned his back to the noise. At this age, not even the next second is guaranteed. Was he about to collapse?
“What you have done …” He turned back to Bezos. “Everybody in the world needs to do this.” Solemn, imploring, as if giving orders. “Everybody in the world needs to see …” Bezos placed a hand on Shatner’s shoulder, steadying him amid the flood of emotions. “I mean, the little things of weightlessness … but to see the blue color just whip by! And now you’re staring into blackness – that’s the thing. The covering of blue, this sheet, this blanket, this comforter of blue that we have around us …”
Time was, Shatner simply memorized and delivered lines like “I haven’t faced death. I’ve cheated death. I’ve tricked my way out of death and patted myself on the back for my ingenuity; I know nothing.” Now he was on his own, without a script, with his own futile words, using his hands to sculpt images from thin air, struggling to accurately convey:
“And you look down and there’s the blue down there and the black up there and it’s, it’s just – there is Mother Earth, Earth and comfort – and there is — is ‘there’ death? I don’t know, is that death? Is that the way death is? Whup! and it’s gone?” He drew his hands to his face, as if he’d seen too much already. “Jeez! It was so moving …”
Shatner’s halting soliloquy went on like this for nearly eight minutes.
“What you have given me is the most profound experience I can imagine.” The voice of the man whose Captain Kirk invited global audiences To Boldly Go Where No Man Has Gone Before trembled and broke. “I’m so filled with emotion about what just happened. I, I … extraordinary, extraordinary.” He hugged Bezos. “I hope I never recover from this. I hope that I can maintain what I feel now, I don’t wanna lose it …” A pause for the impossible, the processing. “It has to do with the enormity and the quickness and the suddenness of life and death and the – oh my god …”
And just like that, a phenomenon known as the Overview Effect gathered another datapoint. “Space philosopher” and author Frank White coined the term in 1987 after hearing so many overlapping stories and emotions from astronauts who returned from the void. By 2016, the American Psychological Association was onboard with the term and its potential mental health merits: “Awe and self-transcendence are among the deepest and most powerful aspects of the human experience; it should come as no surprise that they emerge as we gaze upon our home planet and our whole world comes into view.”
Lately, after studying these epiphanies for decades, White believes he’s developed a workable equation that can gauge the depth of the OE:
I=DxT+O. The (I)mpact of Earth-gazing equals the (D)istance the subject is from the planet, multiplied by the (T)ime or duration of that exposure, plus the subject’s (O)penness or receptivity to the experience.
White has long advocated closing a massive gap in brain science – the mystery of what happens physiologically, cognitively, to our grey matter while we contemplate the view. Given the documented, quasi-hypnotic spell cast by Earth-gazing, whether from low orbit or rounding the dark side of the moon, one hypothesis is that those parts of the brain that govern spatial relationships might dim out, similar to what brain maps show during deep meditation. But meditation is an intentional act. What happens upstairs if the witness is confronted by an unprecedented vision that requires no effort whatsoever?
“Before commercial spaceflights started, a lot of people who had just begun to understand the Overview Effect would say to me, ‘I don’t really think you can experience it on a Blue Origin or a Virgin Galactic flight because it’s so brief and you don’t go very high.’ And my response was, let’s be as scientific as we can about it,” White says, “and see what happens.”
Now a member of Harvard’s Galileo Project SETI team, White has interviewed three space tourists, and all have related their own versions of Shatner’s tale, of being overwhelmed. “Seeing him come out of that with his mind blown was great,” White says. “He wasn’t gone that long, he didn’t go that high, so it may show us that the O factor might be the most important variable of all.”
And in the immediate afterglow of Shatner’s euphoria, the actor made another public plea to Bezos for something that White had been onto for some time: “If everybody … it would be so important if everybody could have that experience through one means or another. Maybe you could put it on 3-D, that is certainly a technical possibility …”
It’s an idea already endorsed by the APA, which suggested “further research might even use simulated views of Earth from orbit to artificially induce and study the effect in normal populations.” And, in fact, virtual reality recreations of the OE have been underway for some time.
Making headlines lately are commercial projects like The Infinite, an hour-long experience now touring Houston, 3-D images courtesy of International Space Station cameras. Although simulating the OE without the accompanying weightlessness may yield incomplete data, entrepreneurs like Ryan Holmes of SpaceVR aren’t waiting for the price of Blue Origin tickets to drop. SpaceVR suspends witnesses in flotation tanks and injects the illusion of weightlessness into the digital panorama offered by the ISS.
At Dwingeloo radio telescope in The Netherlands, artist Daniela de Paulis has a brainlab with degreed neuroscientists working with a VR platform called Cogito in Space. In addition to taking the plunge into Earth-from-space imagery, witnesses are wired with EEG hookups, which convert their brainwave activity into sounds, which in turn are dispatched into untargeted sections of the sky. The idea is “to create a connection between the mind and whatever conception it has of the universe.”
So you can’t help but wonder: Could whatever data emerges from OE research also be useful in accommodating UFO encounters, no matter how fleeting the intersections? White says look at what just a few minutes of the fantastic did to Shatner.
“I think it’s worth exploring,” White adds. “The commonality of the Overview Effect and the UAP experience is a sense of awe and wonder. You heard it from those Navy pilots. It’s what happens when your brain encounters something with no previous information to compare it to. You’re unprepared to process what you’re seeing, and what you’re seeing is yourself in a different context.”
Short of hitting the lottery and hitching a real-life joyride into the OE, White envisions VR engagements as inevitable evolutionary steps if Earthlings are serious about saving themselves. For a species facing ecological calamity beneath the nearly 80-year shadow of nuclear annihilation, whatever it takes to illuminate the ties that bind can no longer be considered a luxury item.
“I think it’s really primal, isn’t it? This need to know whether we’re unique, or whether we’re ordinary. Humanity has been around for a very long time — and here we are, still debating if we’re alone.” White goes for the money and channels the man who used to be Captain Kirk: “Everybody needs to experience this. I think it should be a human right.”