WASHINGTON                  -              The spectacle of Earth suspended in space was so overwhelming for Edgar Mitchell that the Apollo 14 astronaut and sixth man on the moon wanted to grab politicians by the scruff of the neck and drag them into space to witness the view.

Such drastic measures may not be necessary, however. Scientists are about to welcome the first participants on an unprecedented clinical trial that aims to reproduce the intense emotional experience, known as the “Overview effect”, from the comfort of a health spa.

If the trial goes well, what led Mitchell to develop “an instant global consciousness” and a profound connection to Earth and its people could be recreated with nothing more than a flotation tank, a half tonne of Epsom salts, and a waterproof virtual reality (VR) headset.

“There’s a lot of division and polarisation and disconnection between people,” said Steven Pratscher, a psychologist and principal investigator on the trial at the University of Missouri. “We’d like to see if we can recreate the Overview effect on Earth to have an impact on those issues.”

Pratscher will recruit about 100 volunteers who are willing to don the VR headset and clamber into a dark, salt-laden flotation tank at the city’s Clarity Float spa. The silence and buoyancy will mimic the sensation of floating in space, while the VR headset plays high-definition, 360 degree immersive video recorded by the Silicon Valley startup, SpaceVR.

The volunteers will be randomly assigned to have either the full flotation tank VR experience, to float without VR, or have VR while lying on a bed. Before and after their one-hour session, the participants will complete a series of questionnaires to assess whether they had any mystical experiences, felt more connected to others, or had what psychologists call an “emotional breakthrough” moment. The persistence of any effects will be assessed after one week and again a month later.

Pratscher does not expect everyone who steps into the tank wearing a VR headset to emerge having experienced the Overview effect. But the experiment will reveal what, if anything, people do experience when their senses are fooled into believing they are looking down on Earth from space.

“It may be able to elicit, to some degree, these mystical experiences, and I’m curious to see if they have persisting effects, for example on people’s values and behaviours, especially with respect to how people view the Earth and the environment, and the things they do that may impact the environment,” Pratscher said.