The Break-Off Effect

The Virgin Galactic crash made the mechanical risks of space tourism clearer, but the psychological effects of space travel largely remain unknown.

The Break-Off Effect
[Illustratons: Kyle Bean]

At first they thought it was asthma.


The fighter squadron’s 37-year-old commander suddenly started refusing to fly at high altitudes because of mysterious breathing problems. He also struggled to control feelings of wrath toward his coworkers, and that made him hyperventilate. It was only later that the commander would tell a Navy psychologist what really triggered him: That while flying at the edge of the troposphere, “a frightening feeling of detachment” set in. There, in the halo of thin silence surrounding the earth in 1956, he didn’t trust his own mind not to self-destruct.

The atmosphere gets threadbare above 45,000 feet. There are fewer nitrogen and oxygen molecules to populate the air, the colors start to deepen and change. Higher than that, at roughly 70,000 feet, some pilots and engineers say you can grasp the curvature of the earth.

Strange things have happened to the human mind at those heights. A year after the commander reported his symptoms, a Navy medical officer and a psychologist published a study on a dissociative anomaly pilots experienced while flying at high altitudes. Brant Clark and Captain Ashton Graybiel interviewed 137 Navy and Marine pilots who had come up with a term for it themselves. The “break-off” phenomenon, they called it.


Not many pilots wanted to tell shrinks about break-off. Talking about your feelings was the opposite of what you were supposed to do as a hyper-masculine alpha pilot, and some refused to share their experiences for fear of sounding “corny.”

A few pilots were willing to take that risk. Of the pilots that did report breaking-off, most felt peaceful, others totally euphoric. And then there was the other group. More than a third of the break-off pilots freaked out.

USAF/Brian Shul

The break-off phenomenon soon became a topic of discussion for any national power interested in hurtling their brawny young men beyond Earth’s atmosphere.


“There had been a lot of concern early in the manned space program about the break-off phenomenon, the notion that you would feel disconnected from the earth when you were above it, particularly when you were in orbit,” remembers Dr. Larry Young, Apollo program professor of astronautics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and an advisor for NASA’s Innovative Advanced Concepts (NIAC) program. “The Soviet Union was very much concerned with it and people in their Russian Academy of Sciences discussed it at meetings,” he adds.

Whether it was the ergonomics of the planes, the isolation, an individual person’s psychology, or the perspective of being up so high, break-off sometimes seemed to produce emotional extremes in pilots and others being prepped for space exploration. Some not only felt separated from Earth. They also felt like they had detached from reality.

Then, suddenly, break-off went away. The condition, which medical and aerospace journals had discussed up until the early ’70s, largely vanished from the literature. “Once we started flying cosmonauts and astronauts the problem disappeared,” Young says.


Forty years later a new generation of space travelers is getting ready to breach the bounds of the earth’s atmosphere. But unlike the early astronauts, who were drawn from pools of highly trained fighter pilots and engineers, the rides are open to pretty much anyone who can afford them.

Fifty companies, several of them promising the space tourism opportunity of a lifetime, have joined the Commercial Spaceflight Federation since 2006, absorbing at least $2 billion in investments (but probably much more) from some of the tech world’s biggest venture capitalists. XCOR Aerospace, a private American company based out of the Mojave desert, has promised to take space tourists paying $100,000 per ticket for five to six minutes of weightlessness next year. In September, Richard Branson announced that Virgin Galactic would be ready to launch some of its first $250,000-ticket tourists into near space by February or March of 2015. The update came two months before Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo test flight splintered into pieces at 45,000 feet, killing Michael Alsbury, one of the aircraft’s two pilots. This past week, National Transportation Safety Board acting chairman Christopher Hart said that the agency was “months and months away” from finding out what went wrong. And even though the Federal Aviation Administration has largely taken a laissez-faire approach to the growing space tourism industry to date, the Virgin Galactic disaster could be enough to encourage the agency to step in. Realizing that the disruptor-entrepreneur’s “move fast, break things” mantra might not be appropriate for space travel could set the space tourism timeline back several years.

But several of the biggest backers of the so-called “NewSpace” movement are investing in more than just physical space parts; they also proselytize about something that can happen to the human mind when it breaches near space. Believers call it the “overview effect.” Virgin Galactic CEO George Whitesides, private space pioneer Anousheh Ansari, and X Prize Foundation trustee Rick Tumlinson are a just handful of the entrepreneurs and ex-NASA luminaries who belong to the Overview Institute, a sort of informal think tank dedicated to the notion that seeing the earth from space delivers a kind of spiritual epiphany that changes your perspective on humanity forever.


The overview effect: a highly emotional anomaly experienced upon entry into space and a cosmic sign of human progress. Author and philosopher Frank White first came up with the idea in 1987, and today it’s become something of a spiritual backbone for the commercial space tourism industry. After the deaths of seven astronauts in the Challenger accident in 1986, White argued in his treatise The Overview Effect: Space Exploration and Human Evolution that lone government budgets couldn’t make space exploration achieve its true potential. The overview effect–which in theory would rally all of humankind toward a space-oriented quest for survival–could help us get there.

White made a case that the “overview effect,” drawn from his own musings while riding in a commercial airline flight over the National Mall and interviews he conducted with 30 astronauts, should serve as motivation to rally private industry and regular people around the push into space. The profound, almost religious experience of seeing the earth from space–at which point a person would see that our home planet is borderless, all of humanity is connected and destined for peace–should motivate us to colonize space and become “true citizens of the universe,” he theorized. Apollo astronauts, he later wrote, were cultural extensions of the knights of Camelot, and the overview effect the path on which humanity must seek the Holy Grail–in this case, the “unity of the planet.” The Overview Effect, which encouraged private sector space exploration, quickly became a hit within the aeronautics community.

After Erik Lindbergh, the environmentalist and aviator grandson of Charles Lindbergh, learned about the overview effect, he became a trustee of the X Prize Foundation, the first popular philanthropic effort to bring private citizens to space. “It changed my life, in fact,” Lindbergh says of talking to Apollo astronauts and reading their accounts in The Overview Effect. “Having that experience will cause people to look back and see that everything we know and depend upon for survival is on this fragile planet, this ‘spaceship Earth’ that is truly the only self-contained spaceship that we have that’s sustainable–and we need to protect it until we can find another habitat.”


Dr. Mae Jemison, the first African-American woman astronaut in space, went out and bought The Overview Effect while training for spaceflight. But it didn’t resonate with her the way it did with other astronauts. “When I read The Overview Effect, people started talking about their hearts connected to this planet. But my response when I went into space is that I was connected to everything,” she says. “I felt much more connected to everything else in the universe, and sometimes on Earth I felt much more separate from the rest of the universe. I felt like I had as much right to be in space or in this universe as any speck of stardust. I was as eternal as that.”

Jemison believes that whatever you experience in space has a lot to do with how you see the universe–and your own existence–from here on Earth. In that sense, she says, overview might just be one of many new space syndromes experienced by people who break away from the home planet. “In some ways [going to space] is almost a Rorschach test for what you believe in, right?”

Some even suggest that the overview effect could be another expression of the break-off phenomenon, the dissociative syndrome that first surfaced back in the ‘50s. Young, the MIT professor, agrees that the concepts could be related. Earlier this year, NASA research fellow Jordan Bimm, a historian studying the space agency’s early astronaut selection process, published a paper looking at the similarities between the two. “I almost see [overview] as replacing the break-off phenomenon, in a weird way. There’s a bit of time in between there, but I see it as filling this sort of space in answering this question of what happens to consciousness at high altitudes,” Bimm says.


No one knows for certain whether the two phenomena are linked, or why they occur in the first place. Bimm figures that overview is less a natural effect and more man-made. But the spiritual and emotional benefits of the overview effect still make for a pretty effective space tourism pitch. High net worth individuals have paid fortunes in the past for the opportunity to go to Everest or go cage diving with Great Whites. A profound space experience–of terror or divine inspiration–certainly meets the extreme tourism criteria.

Amid a smattering of office parks just off the Pennsylvania Turnpike, half an hour north of Philadelphia, Dick Leland spends much of his time trying to predict what might happen to the minds and bodies of unscreened civilian tourists sent into space.

NASTAR, the first company ever to be certified by the Federal Aviation Administration for commercial space training, has contracted with the likes of XCOR and Virgin Galactic to prepare their first customers for the edge of the atmosphere. As NASTAR’s president, Leland has welcomed professional Department of Defense pilots, Richard Branson, and 450 future space tourists into what he calls the “beast,” a centrifuge that sits in a giant white warehouse at the back of the Bucks County building.


From a control room next to the centrifuge, Leland, a tall, square-shouldered former Air Force instructor pilot with a penchant for vintage radios, watches video feeds of people’s faces over their two-day space training course, which mostly consists of getting clients acclimated to acceleration (or “g”) forces inside a capsule at the end of the centrifuge’s high-speed spinning arm. From his two decades in the Air Force, Leland says he’s used to picking up on subtle cues that let him know when to stop pulling g’s. “What I’ve learned is that you, more often than not, you can tell when a person’s starting to get into trouble by looking at their eyes,” he says. “And you’ll see it in their eyes well before they say anything. You can see that there’s some level of distress.”

Kyle Bean

There are a slew of physiological experiences that the NASTAR program has to take into account, like g-induced loss of consciousness, a temporary dip that makes your brain act as if it were being drained of blood, and space motion sickness, a common affliction that makes astronauts throw up. NASTAR’s training program also tries to run tourists through the centrifuge enough times so that they feel confident about space travel, which in theory will decrease their anxiety.

Leland says he isn’t too worried that suborbital space tourists might experience break-off. After all, the people who reported break-off back in the ’50s were isolated in their cockpits, and space tourists will travel in packs. They’re paying for the trip of a lifetime, and they’ll be busy.


Young has a similar take. “I think we do now recognize that there’s a sense of distance and loneliness in missions, but it occurs after a much longer period of time,” he says. The negative effects of break-off might factor more into missions to Mars, the focus of Young’s current work with NASA, in which passengers will watch the earth shrink smaller and smaller behind them.

Experiencing something as intense as break-off as a space tourist could also be part of the fun. Jack Stuster, a cultural anthropologist who has spent much of the last decade analyzing anonymous diary entries of astronauts for NASA, says a shifted perspective in near-Earth spaceflight would likely be positive. The astronauts he knows love looking out the window at Earth. “I would predict that each one would come back with, if not a life-changing, a perspective-altering experience,” he says.

But training space tourists marks a major shift away from training military pilots. That’s part of the reason NASTAR wants to find out just how far they can lower the barrier of entry. In 2013, the training facility ran a series of experiments in coordination with the University of Texas Medical Branch seeing how people with pre-existing conditions, like a pacemaker, might function in the two-day training course. They found that the majority of subjects, even those with asthma or back injuries, fared well. And in the next few months, NASTAR will facilitate another study–this time to see whether the two-day training can prove that it will lower space tourists’ anxiety levels.


Leland has faith it can.

Break-off, as it turns out, didn’t quite disappear in the ’70s. Bimm has a theory: Astronauts were terrified of being grounded–not being allowed to fly because of a mental or physical flaw. Because of this fear, pilots and astronauts developed a sort of “lie to fly” culture, in which, even if they did experience something scary, they were unlikely to report it.

Puking astronauts did something similar when they tried to hide space motion sickness from their flight surgeons. Eventually, thanks to transmissions of conversations witnessed by Mission Control in the ’70s, the truth came out. Astronauts also tried to hide the fact that they had started witnessing mysterious flashes of light when they passed over something called the South Atlantic Anomaly, a region hundreds of miles above South America that holds charged particles from solar wind.


“Nobody talked about that until it was discussed by one or two [astronauts] and then reproduced in a laboratory in Berkeley,” Young says. “That’s just one or two cases where denial was getting in the way of what the facts were.”

Could the overview effect be a trumped-up and defanged version of break-off, thanks to the absence of negative reporting from astronauts? Bimm thinks so. “Before, there was really this sort of idea of the heroic masculine astronaut that [NASA] didn’t want to complicate with any sort of notion that maybe they might be mentally unstable, or they may not be able to deal with some of the things they were facing,” he says.

Eventually, break-off got lumped into a larger category of pilot malfunction called “spatial disorientation.” When John F. Kennedy Jr. flew his plane into the Atlantic Ocean in 1999, researchers found new defense money to take up the old study of strange physiological and psychological phenomena at high altitudes. Break-off became just one of many syndromes a pilot might exhibit while flying.


Valerie Gawron was one of those researchers, a renowned engineer with a PhD in aviation psychology who first started investigating F-16 crashes on Brooks Air Force Base in the ’80s and ’90s. Like NASA’s early astronaut selection process, the Air Force had tried to choose pilots that might be resistant to certain motion and perception problems based on their body types. When that didn’t work–anyone, as it happened, could become spatially disoriented–Gawron and her colleagues started taking a deeper look into what went wrong.

As Gawron spent hours with accident boards, going over the details of cases with pilots, she began to pick up on patterns in their stories. “You know as a woman, sometimes men will tell you things that they won’t tell other men?” Gawron asks me over the phone. “As soon as almost everyone else was out of the room, a pilot would tell me, you know, Val, I’ve got to tell you this story, but don’t you dare use my name.”

Listen to Dr. Mae Jemison describe seeing Earth from space.

Many of those pilots recounted positive feelings, even as they started making dangerous mistakes. Feelings like awe, reverence, and a sense of calm and “separation from the problems of the world” could all force them to take their aircraft into an unplanned maneuver. Pilots also experienced common illusions. One, called the “left hand of God” illusion, had pilots reporting that they felt a giant hand pressing down on one of the wings of their aircraft.

Gawron noticed that stress and trauma from other life experiences could become magnified in flight, too. After one pilot lost a son, he told Gawron he heard his son’s voice again while flying: Daddy, watch out! It was only then that the pilot noticed he had plunged into a dive. “To this day, I believe that it was truly his voice, not my imagination,” he told her.

Gawron, who also once chaired NASA’s Space Human Factors Science and Technology Working Group, included several of these stories in a psychology-focused chapter she wrote for a technical book on spatial disorientation. After the book was published in 2004, Gawron guesses she must have gotten a thousand phone calls from pilots all over the world. “I thought it was nuts,” Gawron says. Twenty more pilots called her about feeling the presences, or hearing the voices, of dead loved ones in flight. When Gawron visited Air Force bases, pilots would have the book dog-eared, ready for her to sign their copies.

Break-off, she says, still very much exists for pilots, even if it doesn’t show up much in the medical literature anymore. “It’s almost becoming a rite of passage now,” Gawron says. “‘Oh yeah, I had that break-off phenomenon, and it scared the bejeezus out of me, but I got through it,'” she echoes with a stoic pilot’s inflection. “There’s more of an openness than I’ve seen before.”

But Gawron’s more skeptical about overview. “I don’t think it’s real,” she says. After all, there’s little data on the subject to satisfy an analytical mind. “I haven’t heard someone I trust be able to convince me,” she says.

This past spring, in the Upper East Side grand foyer of the Explorers Club–a century-old Manhattan society that keeps the first sled to touch the North Pole mounted on a wall and a stricken-looking, taxidermied polar bear near the stairs–a crowd of suited men and silk-draped women crowded in front of a screen.

The guests came for a night of space tourism presentations, and this one had the slickest production of them all. The video opened with a giant, orange tube-shaped capsule glinting in a patch of southwestern desert. The sun flashed across the “WORLD VIEW” logo on the tube’s side. Then, it lifted; a balloon carried the capsule up, up above the sandstone buttes, up through the clouds, and up into the blue-black thinness of space. At 100,000 feet, violins swelled as two animated passengers from inside the tube peered at a rounded blue mass called Earth. Gently, the balloon detached, and the payload, humans included, floated back down to the dirt.

“The experience you saw on the video doesn’t really do justice to the experience we’re creating,” Andrew Antonio, a young, healthy-haired marketer for company World View Enterprises, Inc., told the crowd. “What we want to do is use a technology that allows you to have a space flight experience that’s similar to the room you’re standing in today.”

World View’s pitch: No medical pre-screening and no special training. Instead, two hours of sublime space viewing from the comfort of a 9,000-pound pressurized capsule 20 miles above the earth. Cheaper than Virgin Galactic’s $250,000 suborbital flight, a World View experience only costs $75,000 a pop, and hinges on a kind of spiritual revelation that only astronauts have witnessed to date. As World View Enterprises’ marketing materials explain, “the unexpected emotional reaction and unparalleled perspective-shift that comes from seeing our planet suspended in space,” makes “a more united earth” seem possible. They call it “the overview effect.”

“Believe it or not, there’s actually going to be a bar on board our space capsule that you saw up there,” Antonio added. World View would already be taking reservations for 2016, he said.

A man’s voice rang out from the crowd. “Do you take credit cards?”


About the author

Sydney Brownstone is a Seattle-based former staff writer at Co.Exist. She lives in a Brooklyn apartment with windows that don’t quite open, and covers environment, health, and data