In a exclusive quote from William Shatner's new book, “Boldly Go: Reflections on a Life of Awe and Wonder,” the Star Trek actor reflects on his journey into space aboard Jeff Bezos' Blue Origin space shuttle on October 13, 2021.
At age 90, Shatner became the oldest living person to travel in space, but as he says below, he was surprised by his reaction to the experience.
I looked down and could see the hole our spacecraft had made in the thin layer of blue-hued oxygen around Earth. As soon as I noticed it, it disappeared.
I continued the self-guided tour and turned my head to face the other direction, to stare into the void. I love the mystery of the universe. I love all the questions that have come to us after thousands of years of exploration and hypothesis. Stars explode years ago, their light travels to us years later. energy-absorbing black holes, satellites that show us entire galaxies in regions thought to be completely devoid of matter.
All of this had excited me for years, but when I looked in the opposite direction, into space, there was no mystery, no majestic awe… all I saw was death.
I saw a cold, dark, black void. It was unlike any blackness you can see or feel on Earth. It was deep solid. I turned back to the light of Earth. I could see the curvature of the Earth, the beige of the desert, the white of the clouds and the blue of the sky. It was life. Nurture, preserve, live. Mother Earth. Gaia. And I left her. Everything I had thought was wrong. Everything I expected to see was wrong.
I thought that going into space would be the ultimate catharsis of that connection I sought between all living things – that being up there would be the next step in understanding the harmony of the universe.
Leaving Earth behind made my connection to our tiny planet even deeper. It was one of the strongest feelings of sadness I have ever encountered. The contrast between the vicious coldness of space and the warmth of Earth below filled me with overwhelming sadness.
Every day, we are faced with the knowledge of the destruction of the Earth: the extinction of animal species, flora and fauna… things that took five billion years to evolve, and suddenly we will not see them again due to the intervention of humanity. This filled me with dread. My trip to space was supposed to be a celebration. Instead, it felt like I was at a funeral.
I later learned that I was not alone in this feeling. It is called "Effect Overview"(Overview Effect) and is not uncommon among astronauts, see Yuri Gagarin, Michael Collins, Sally Ride and many others. In fact, when one travels in space and sees the Earth from orbit, the sense of the fragility of the planet dominates in an incredible way.
Author Frank White first coined the term in 1987:
“There are no borders or boundaries on our planet except those we create in our minds or through human behaviors. All the ideas and concepts that separate us when we are on the surface begin to fade from orbit and the moon. The result is a change in worldview and identity."
This can change the way we see the planet but also other things like countries, ethnicities and religions. It can cause an immediate reappraisal of our common harmony and a shift in focus to all the wonderful things we have in common instead of what makes us different. It strengthened tenfold my own view of the power of our beautiful, mysterious collective human entanglement, and ultimately, returned a sense of hope to my heart.
In this insignificance we share, we have a gift that other species may not have: we know – not only our insignificance, but the greatness around us that makes us insignificant. This perhaps gives us an opportunity to rededicate ourselves to our planet, to each other, to life and love all around us.
If we seize this opportunity.
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