Expats in Outer Space: Lessons from Astronauts

Categories: Global Mindset, Global Mobility

Whether you are preparing to work abroad for the first time, currently working abroad, or are a seasoned expat, you can learn a lot about your overseas experience from an unlikely source – astronauts.

Perhaps undertaking the most extreme form of expatriation – going some 30 million miles into outer space to work and live – astronauts have compiled valuable knowledge into how distancing oneself from home and viewing the world in a new way can impact perspective.

Here are three major insights from astronauts that draw parallels to the Earthly expatriate experience:

1. Even if you don’t plan on seeing the world differently, you will.

Regardless of how determined you are to go abroad and strictly do your job – nothing more, nothing less – you will see the world differently.

This is inevitable, given you are experiencing the world from a different viewpoint (geographically, culturally, linguistically – the list goes on).

Astronauts experience quite a different viewpoint compared to expats on Earth. They get to view the world from a completely removed vantage point.

Captain Winston E. Scott, Astronaut & Senior Vice President for External Relations and Economic Development at the Florida Institute of Technology, gave Aperian Global special insight into what this experience is like.

“I believe it’s universal that astronauts, when viewing Earth from space, are struck by the absence of boundaries. There are no visible geographical, geopolitical, ethnic, or racial lines of distinction. The Earth looks small, rather fragile, bright and peaceful.

If only those on earth could capture the essence of what astronauts see from space. Perhaps then we could regain and maintain that which is the true human spirit.”

The experience Captain Winston E. Scott describes is referred to as the “overview effect1. It has been documented by astronauts from all over the world. It is categorized as a cerebral shift in awareness; a feeling of overwhelming vastness and yet complete connectedness with the Earth as a whole.

Although expats don’t experience quite the same extreme shift in awareness, there is clear evidence that expats who immerse themselves in another culture experience a shift in attitude2.

It is also common for expats to develop greater empathy and critical awareness, as well as increased cross-cultural interest and international political concern.3

2. “We are all traveling together on this planet”

-Nasa Astronaut Ron Garan4

Frank White, the Overview Institute founder explains: “…there are no borders or boundaries on our planet except those that we create in our minds… All the ideas and concepts that divide us when we are on the surface begin to fade from orbit and the moon.” 5

Because expats on Earth don’t have the privilege of seeing continents shrink and meld together to form one singular planet, this is an extremely important lesson to remember, especially at times when you feel isolated or frustrated by cultural or linguistic barriers.

Remember, no matter how out of place you feel in your new home, you are not an alien. You can and will be able to find a connection with the people around you and the place you live in.

Keep in mind the wise words of Frank White: “…we are one species, with one destiny as we move out from Earth…” 6

3. Be prepared, but recognize that you can’t always be prepared.

Space Shuttle astronaut Don L. Lind did every measure of intellectual preparation he could before his launch into space. Yet, “There is no way you can be prepared for the emotional impact. It was a moving enough experience that it brought tears to my eyes.”7

Preparation is critical before relocation abroad. However, there are things you simply can’t plan for, and they might bring tears to your eyes (for good or for bad).

Accepting that you can’t anticipate every aspect of your move abroad will help you embrace the unexpected and appreciate the unplanned experiences. Sometimes the best things are those you can’t foresee.


1,4,7 Calderone, J. (2015, August 31). Something profound happens when astronauts see Earth from space for the first time. Tech Insider. Retrieved here

2,3 Carlson, J. S. & Widaman, K. F. (1988). The effects of study abroad during college on attitudes toward other cultures. International Journal of Intercultural Relations, Vol. 12, 1, pp. 1-17.

5,6 White, F. (2012, December 7). The Overview Effect: Astronauts’ Unique View of the Earth and What We All Can Learn from It.” The Overview Institute. Retrieved here.