Virtual reality headset reflecting a view of earth and part of the International Space Station

Can virtual reality mimic the overview effect? I took a $50 trip to space to find out.

The International Space Station hovered in front of me against a black starry sky. When I looked down, I couldn’t see my feet at all, just the curved, blue shape of the earth. I was only minutes into my preliminary spacewalk when I was interrupted by a flash of red text across my screen: A staff member was trying to talk to me. Had I already done something wrong?

No, at least not yet. My virtual reality headset’s battery was apparently low and needed to be turned off. I removed it clumsily, then looked around the darkroom and sneaked a peek at my fellow space explorers. A handful of people in VR goggles roamed the polished floors of the hall, which took up nearly half the size of a football field. I was in “The Infinite,” a virtual reality experience currently in Tacoma, Washington, that transports you to space for the low price of $50.

Then, with my new, fully equipped headset, I was back in the International Space Station, free to roam and walk through walls. Blue floating orbs were scattered across the area, and when I reached out to touch one, the landscape changed, immersing me in 360-degree views of everyday life aboard the ISS. I watched astronauts gather around a table, eat bars of ambiguous space food, and look over the shoulder of someone who was staring out the window and admiring the view of Earth.

Astronauts say that seeing the planet from space for the first time can be a life-changing moment, filling you with awe, transcendence and a sense of cosmic connection. The Earth looks fragile, protected from the hostility of space by only the thin blue line of the atmosphere. The so-called “overview effect” can be weighed with responsibility — in fact, it has prompted a number of astronauts to advocate for environmental causes (you’d be surprised how often they show up at global climate conferences).

Space tourism is now a thing, thanks to billionaires like Jeff Bezos, Richard Branson and Elon Musk. But real orbit travel is only available to astronauts, celebrities and the super-rich for now. However, experiences like the “The Infinite” teleport people into space for a small fraction of the cost (and pollution).

Proponents of the overview effect say its environmental effects can be replicated, at least to some extent, on the ground. But my recent virtual journey suggests that the technology, mind-blowing as it may be, is still a long way off. It’s hard to rise to transcendence when annoyances on the ground — low batteries, the weight of the VR headset, the inescapable presence of gravity — keep reminding you that you’re still on the ground. You can’t force the overview effect, but you can glimpse it, lose yourself for a moment, and suspend disbelief.

People wearing headsets stand on a purple gradient floor against a dark background with a white crescent moon over it.
Melissa Taylor / The Infinite

On a scale from zero to space, “The Infinite” is about halfway there. Some critics stated that they had experienced the overview effect, and the exhibition is realistic enough to reportedly brought a former member of the ISS to tears† There is other evidence that VR experiences can evoke a certain level of emotion. A virtual reality lab at the University of Pennsylvania simulated shooting people into low Earth orbit and found that they reported feelings of awe, albeit at a much lower intensity than actual space travelers.

That matched my experience with ‘The Infinite’, an exhibition I’ve never seen before. The VR technology was impressive: my first few steps in the exhibition were nerve-racking, as if I could fall into the starry sky at any moment. At one point, I ducked to dodge a soccer ball being thrown by an astronaut, an instinct unshaken by the fact that the soccer ball was just an apparition. Other real people walking through space were depicted as sparkling, celestial avatars. Red bars would flash as I approached a wall so I couldn’t bump into anything (an impressive feat if you have a poor sense of spatial awareness like me).

The footage, filmed over three years by astronauts aboard the ISS, gives you an intimate glimpse into life in orbit. The little details stayed with me, like watching an astronaut’s locks of dark, curly hair hover over her head, floating in space. I spent as much time as I could looking at the earth and stretching my neck to see that the view did indeed extend all around me. The planet was huge, covered in swirling clouds and vast oceans, mostly overshadowed when the sun rose in the sky.

I came across a few scenes in “The Infinite” that explored the environmental insights of life on the ISS. In a hallway, an astronaut said that many species were dying out, and that if we weren’t careful, humans would die too. Another looked out the round window of the dome-shaped dome, stared at Earth and talked about how precious our planet is and how important it was to take care of it.

The signs of climate change are already visible from the vantage point of the ISS. Astronauts have looked down on green mountains that used to be covered with snow and ice† Last year, flames and plumes of smoke from the California wildfires were visible to the naked eye.

White headphones lit by teal lights are lined up over a wall.
Melissa Taylor / The Infinite

Looking back at Earth in my VR-induced daze, I was struck by the same feeling I get when I stare at the stars on a clear night, seeing the faint bands of the Milky Way strewn across the sky: stunned by the size of the universe and how small I am in comparison. Walking out of the exhibit felt like I was leaving a movie theater after a matinee, squinting as the bright daylight reminded me where I was—a jolt after my mind had been temporarily transported elsewhere. I was immediately greeted by the smell of car exhaust.

The journey to “The Infinite” was an exercise in possibilities: of all the ways we could have set up our lives and built this world, why would we do it this way? With car exhaust in all our faces? If you look down on Earth from the ISS, the boundaries are invisible; you forget the limitations of politics. For a moment, the current terrifying state of the world doesn’t feel so inevitable. It’s a shift in perspective, even if it’s not as stunning as actually being in space.

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