A couple of months ago, I wrote a piece here on Universe exploring the ideas of the futurist Gerard K. O’Neill, who designed far-out but ultimately quite pragmatic environments for human habitation in space in the mid-1970s. In that article, I touched briefly on the notion of the “Overview Effect,” a phrase coined by the writer Frank White to describe the profound insight — characterized by a sudden awareness of life’s interconnectedness and the frailty of our planet — experienced by astronauts gazing down at the Earth from space.
Frank White is the author of The Overview Effect: Space Exploration and Human Evolution, a book that has completely changed the way I think about our planet and its position within the larger systems of the Universe. The book is an amalgam of space history, environmentalist philosophy, and starry-eyed futurism; it weaves White’s observations about the nature of systems, the future of space travel, global communications, and cosmic spirituality with interviews with dozens of astronauts from all over the world. In short, it should be mandatory reading for all passengers aboard the Spaceship Earth.
Frank White was gracious enough to lend his time and considerable mind to a battery of questions from Universe, the full transcript of which is below. It’s long, but I promise it will blow your mind.
[I'm greatly indebted to Jonathan Minard, of deepspeed media and the STUDIO for Creative Inquiry at Carnegie Mellon University, for his help in brainstorming many of these questions.]
Part One: The End of the Space Age
Universe: Following the retirement of the shuttle program this summer, some have labeled this the “end of the space age.” Others argue that it’s simply the age of human exploration that’s over, and that robots are the path forward. How do you respond to these assessments?
Frank White: I would suggest that both assessments are incorrect. Space exploration is a global enterprise with increasing private involvement, and the end of one program for one national space agency is neither the end of the “space age,” nor of human exploration.
Media reports have linked the shuttle program with space exploration in a way that obscures some of the more positive aspects of the new US space policy. For example, it encourages more private investment in space at a time when more private companies, like Virgin Galactic, are making those commitments. It also encourages more international cooperation, extends the life of the International Space Station, and sets our sights on Mars, which many space advocates consider the most logical next objective for human exploration.
The dichotomy between human and robotic exploration is also unnecessary. The two complement one another, especially if we want to not only explore but also begin to create human communities off the Earth. It is not an either/or choice.
Universe: The establishment of permanent habitation in space is no longer a question of technical feasibility, but political and social will. There are those who believe humans must explore space to avoid extinction and those who deem it foolish to waste resources on projects distracting us from our responsibilities at home. How do you see the two sides of the argument for and against space settlement?
The key to the question is, “What do we consider our home?”
Frank White: I understand the two sides of the argument, but I consider human evolution to be the imperative behind our expansion into the universe, and I think it will continue. By this, I mean evolution in terms of politics, sociology, economics, and other aspects of human society, not just biology. The key to the question is, “What do we consider our home?” If it is the solar system and beyond, then space settlement is not a distraction. And even if our home is the Earth alone, there are many elements of space exploration and settlement that have already been beneficial to the Earth. For example, most people would agree that the Overview Effect triggered or at least enhanced the environmental impulse. This has proven to be beneficial to the Earth in ways that would have been difficult to predict in advance. The same can be said of how the Overview Effect has influenced our views on war and peace, also to the benefit of the people on Earth.
I find it somewhat puzzling that when we talk about problems on Earth, such as the so-called “population problem,” we never include the dimension of our larger environment, i.e., the solar system and beyond. And when we talk about the “energy problem,” only a few people are willing to even consider the promise of satellites that could beam solar energy to the Earth. We discuss almost every major human problem as if we were confined to one planet, rather than being on “Spaceship Earth,” which is a part of the solar system, galaxy, and universe.
Universe: Are the goals of caring for the biosphere on the one hand, and on the other of establishing artificial ecospheres in space, necessarily mutually exclusive?
Frank White: No…this is a choice as well. In my book, I talk about the Human Space Program as a “central project” for all of humanity. It involves establishing a planetary civilization with a high priority on protecting the biosphere as well as a commitment to exploring the universe as a global (rather than national) enterprise. The Human Space Program could become a unifying force for humanity as we expand beyond Earth. We can create any future that we choose to create as a species. Caring for the biosphere can be in conflict with creating new ecospheres, or the two goals can be in harmony with one another.
Part Two: The Whole Earth Image
Universe: Do you think the Overview Effect might be less potent for a generation of people raised on the “Earthrise” image, which by now has been reduced to a symbol? Would a second generation of voyagers need to travel further afield to experience the same impact as the original Apollo astronauts did — is it just the shock of the utterly new perspective that jars us, or something essential about seeing the home planet?
Frank White: Here, it depends on what we mean by Overview Effect, i.e., is it a seeing a picture or is it having a direct experience? As my colleague at the Overview Institute, David Beaver, points out, the two are not the same, and we have perhaps been lulled into believing that they are. In my book, I quote one of the astronauts (Alan Shepard) pointing out that he had studied many pictures before he flew, but nothing could have prepared him for what he actually saw. I personally recall the moment when the Apollo 8 crew turned their camera back to show us the Earth, and the impact was tremendous. So pictures and videos did have an enormous impact in the 1960s that perhaps is not the same today. However, I believe that the direct experience and high-quality simulations of it will still be powerful, even for the younger generations who take Apollo missions and Earthrise for granted.
I should also mention something that Apollo 14 astronaut Edgar Mitchell pointed out to me when I interviewed him for my book: those who are most open to the experience will benefit the most from it.
Part Three: “We Are One Species With One Destiny”
Universe: Do you believe it’s necessary for us all to experience the Overview Effect for ourselves? What would happen if everyone on Earth had chance to undergo this experience? How would our culture be changed?
Frank White: I would like so see as many as people as possible have the experience, either directly or through simulations. According to innovation theory, you only need about 20 percent of a population to adopt an innovation to create significant change, so I don’t think everyone needs to have the experience to trigger a paradigm shift. Once that occurs, I believe we would be much more environmentally aware, see ourselves more as citizens of the universe, rather than of different nations, and be far more committed to building a peaceful planetary civilization. I suspect that if astronauts’ experiences are any guide, those who have the experience directly will also want to go back into space.
Universe: The Overview Effect is often compared to spiritual experience, to the altered states of consciousness experienced by people in various modes of spiritual trance or religious ecstasy. Do you see a relationship between the Overview Effect and more terrestrial transcendence? Is the Overview Effect a shortcut to a state it might take a meditator a lifetime to achieve? Further, if these distinctions are blurred, is space a religion?
Frank White: This is an area of great misunderstanding, in my opinion, and it is something that I covered in some detail in my book. There is nothing automatically spiritual about going into Low Earth Orbit or to the moon, any more than there is anything automatic about going into a great cathedral. In both settings, there is certainly an opportunity for a spiritual experience, but no guarantee, and I don’t think it is a shortcut to the kind of permanent transcendence that a meditator might achieve. One of the astronauts whom I interviewed for my book (Don Lind) specifically took issue with the idea that going into space is a religious experience, and I dealt with that at some length.
We find that when the Overview Effect is characterized as a euphoric experience that produces an epiphany, it is most often linked with Edgar Mitchell‘s Apollo 14 flight. Edgar is a member of the Overview Group and is an advocate of better understanding of the Overview Effect, so he is definitely connected with the Overview Effect.
In writing my book, I was so impressed with his description of his experience that I gave it a different name, i.e., the Universal Insight. While the Universal Insight is similar to and related to the Overview Effect, in that it is a change in awareness that results from space exploration, it is different in that it refers to an identity of oneness with the universe, rather than the planet.
Those of us working on this issue at the Overview Institute think that a shift in cognitive understanding regarding the Earth is by far the more common experience. For example, the realization that there are no borders or boundaries on the Earth seems typical, as does heightened environmental awareness.
Universe: Some scholarship suggests that so-called “near-death,” or “out of body” experiences can be effectively triggered by gravity-induced loss of consciousness. Does the Overview Effect have a relationship to gravity, or any other physical force?
Frank White: Yes, it is definitely related to zero gravity. While we have focused our attention primarily on the view of the Earth from space and in space, the fact that this perspective happens while the person is in zero gravity is an integral part of the experience. Most of the astronauts I interviewed for my book commented on the lack of gravity as being central to the uniqueness of their experience. In fact, one of them, Charlie Walker, specifically related the lack of gravity to the feeling of euphoria that he and other astronauts did have in orbit. We need to conduct more studies of this aspect of the Overview Effect.
Universe: The Overview Effect has, by virtue of our space programs’ inherent brevity, only been experienced as a short-term revelation. How do you imagine the Effect might manifest, develop, or sustain in an individual living in a space colony or station for an extended period of time? In someone born in space?
Frank White: That question actually began my quest to understand the Overview Effect. As I recount in the book, I was flying cross-country and gazing out the window at a time when I was extremely interested in O’Neill’s space settlement ideas. It occurred to me that people living in space settlements would always have an “overview.” They would know intuitively what philosophers and sages have been trying to tell us for millennia: we are one species with one destiny. The borders and boundaries we draw on our planet are really in our minds, not on the Earth itself. After that flight, I resolved to write the book, and to interview as many astronauts as possible, to determine if there was indeed, an “Overview Effect.”
The Effect is clearly going to be stronger for a person who has spent more time experiencing it, and especially someone born in space. They are clearly going to have far less of an identity with places on the surface of the Earth, and they are also likely to experience the next stages in evolution in consciousness, which I call the “Copernican Perspective” (identification with the solar system) and “Universal Insight” (identification with the universe).
Universe: Do you believe that there’s a teleological argument to be made to explain humanity’s diaspora into deep space? Does nature preordain us to become spacefaring?
Frank White: I have no scientific or empirical evidence for this, but I do think human beings are predisposed to explore, and I have called it the “exploration imperative” elsewhere. I link that with evolution, because evolution happens when a species explores. Biologically, it occurs when a species is isolated from the main gene pool so that mutations can gain a foothold. I think the same thing can be said for social evolution, as we see with settlements in North America, South America, and Australia. New political forms and social norms evolved as a result of exploration and settlement in those cases.
More generally, I have advanced the “Cosma Hypothesis,” which is a broader version of the “Gaia Hypothesis.” By that, I mean that if the Earth is a living system (Gaia) then so is the universe (Cosma). As humans move out into the universe and evolve, then the universe evolves. Insofar as we are part of an evolutionary process, there is a teleological basis for space exploration. Perhaps we are designed to spread life and mind where life and mind are scarce.
I would also mention that this has been another “aha moment” for me. I have come to realize that we usually tend to justify space exploration in terms of how it benefits humanity. I believe we should also ask ourselves how it benefits the universe as a whole. As we have become more environmentally aware, we have gone from exploiting the Earth to thinking that we ought to care for it and be good stewards of it. If we had that attitude toward the larger environment of the universe, it would be much easier to justify.
Frank White is cofounder and project manager of the The Overview Institute, a nonprofit organization that seeks to share the experience of the Overview Effect with as many people on Earth as possible. The Institute’s “Overview Declaration” is worth reading.
The Overview Effect: Space Exploration and Human Evolution, by Frank White
Whole Earth Discipline: An Ecopragmatist Manifesto, by Stewart Brand
Operating Manual for Spaceship Earth, by R. Buckminster Fuller
Gaia, by James Lovelock