When Frank Borman, the commander of the Apollo 8 mission, first saw the Earth from afar, he thought to himself: “This must be what God sees.”
What Borman was feeling became known as the Overview Effect—a kind of transcendental experience that occurs when astronauts see the world from a different perspective. Only 600 people have been to space so far, but now, you can experience it, too . . . sort of.
Just outside Derry in Northern Ireland, an epic scale model of the solar system has taken the shape of a 6-mile sculpture trail. Aptly named Our Place in Space, the installation takes you on a hike across the solar system while teaching you about 10,000 years of human history on Earth. It was designed by artist and celebrated children’s book author Oliver Jeffers, who wanted to recreate a version of the Overview Effect—and help us rethink our actions on this planet.
“I’ve always been interested in scale and perspective and different ways of seeing things,” says Jeffers, who has played with both before. His 2017 book Here We Are begins with a map of the solar system and goes on to explore our place within it, and This Way Up features a mind-boggling, upside-down world map he drew to inspire new ways of seeing things.
Our Place in Space unfolds at a scale of 591 million to 1, or the smallest scale it could be for Pluto to still be visible to the naked eye. The hike is punctuated by a series of arches adorned with neon lights and huge comedic arrows. Each arch holds a model of its respective planet. Pluto is the size of a matchhead, the Earth is less than an inch wide, and Jupiter is as big as a football. “It’s not just a scale model,” says Jeffers, who collaborated with Irish astrophysicist Stephen Smartt to make the installation spatially accurate. “It’s a framing device to make an artistic point about the way in which we conduct ourselves in the only place we know to harbor life in the universe.”
The sculpture trail starts in a park outside of Derry, and winds its way across a bridge over River Foyle, before looping back on itself through the city center and another park. Since all planets revolve around the sun, the experience starts there. It takes one large step to get from the Earth to the Moon—”or one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind,” Jeffers says. From there, it takes about 330 feet to reach Mars, and a total of 6 miles to reach Pluto, the farthest planet—or dwarf planet—in our solar system.
The installation can be experienced in a few hours (or via a gorgeously illustrated augmented reality app that Jeffers also helped design). It will remain in Derry through the end of April, then travel to another location on the Divis mountain outside of Belfast, and then along the River Cam in Cambridge, England.
It may not be a spacewalk, but if you find yourself in the area, it may be the closest you’ll ever come to experiencing the Overview Effect.