A Conversation with Frank White - Part 1

I recently called my friend Frank White to chat for a while about our mutual interest in the broader meaning in humankind’s desire to explore and settle outer space. Nearly two hours went by in a flash, and what I captured on my recorder was an engaging discussion that veered from the Overview Effect to Apollo and JFK to the Buddha and the quest for Enlightenment to Rosa Parks.Our discussion is particularly relevant as we approach the 50 anniversary of death of John F. Kennedy.There is much in this dialogue for anyone who believes that something deeper is motivating our space dreams. What follows is Part 1 of our conversation. Part 2 will follow in a week or so.

-Steven Wolfe

Steven Wolfe (SW)

What I want to do is to get a little more deeply into some of the philosophical principles we both share about the Overview Effect, the nature of human evolution, and how it relates to human expansion into space. I think with many interviews -- and you have a lot more experience than I do in this regard – it can be a tough conversation to delve into some of the more intangible issues of what motivates us as humans to want to explore and settle space.

I thought that maybe the way to get this started was to refer to some of the passages of the Overview Effect and give you an opportunity to expand on them. The passage I want to begin with really got me when I was rereading Overview Effect recently -- I had underlined and starred the passage in my copy of the book when I first read it. I apologize for marking up your book, but I consider it a text book for me. On page 93 you wrote:

“The purpose of human space exploration cannot be found in human desires and ambitions alone, but must be viewed as a phenomenon actively encouraged by universal forces.”

To me, that resonates because it’s suggesting that this whole movement that we are making toward space is being motivated by something that’s possibly beyond our ability to fully comprehend. What we try to do, through our limited way as human being with limited capacities, is to justify those feeling about space exploration according to things that are familiar to us. For example, we might say space exploration is important because we might make a lot of money out there, or it might help us gain more knowledge about the solar system. I am just curious what your current thinking is on this passage, especially now that it is more than 25 years after the publishing of the book.

Frank White (FW)

When I started The Overview Effect, right at the beginning I quoted a conversation that took place shortly after the Challenger accident where Tom Wolfe and George Will were saying “we’ve never had a philosophy of space exploration,” and I stated that I was going to try to develop one. As I wrote the book and tried to come up with that philosophy from a human-centered point of view, I could only face the fact that I had failed. And when I reached that impasse it occurred to me, well maybe it’s the point of view that’s wrong, and the Overview Effect is all about “point of view.” So what if I tried to think of this from the point of view of the universe as a whole. The universe is a whole system, and you might say in theory it’s the only whole system that isn't a part of another system. So, one of the things we find in the Overview Effect is that as you go outward from the planet you go from this perception of the part to the perception of the whole. So when we are on the Earth we can’t see the whole Earth. We can only see its parts. When we’re in orbit, we see the whole system and that’s the revelation the astronauts had. That led me to think, “well okay, what are we doing for the universe by going into orbit, going to the moon, evolving as we are?” And the most obvious answer, which you discussed in The Obligation, is that we’re bringing life and intelligence to parts of the universe that may lack it at this time and by evolving spiritually, mentally, physically and in other ways, the universe is evolving. In other words, if we evolve, then because we are part of the universe, it must evolve as well. Ultimately, the best answer I have right now is the universe becomes more intelligent as intelligent life spreads out into the cosmos. Once that happens, there are one of two possibilities. The first is that we are bringing life to a void. That is to say, there is no other intelligent life, as we know it. In that case, our purpose is to bring intelligent life to those regions. Or, we may contact other intelligent civilizations, which will create a new process, emerging from the interaction with those civilizations.


Well, that actually brings me to another point you make in the book. You raise the perennial question, “Why should human beings explore outer space?” and describe it as something of a Zen koan. It seems that you’re saying that in fact there is a purpose for us to explore space and, in a larger context, there is a purpose for humanity. You write, “As more overview systems are created and linked together, the final outcome might be that the universe itself becomes the ultimate overview system.” That’s essentially what you were saying just now. So this indeed serves as the great purpose for humanity. Through our consciousness we are able to experience the world as a whole. And that has tremendous potential for life on Earth and civilization on Earth—never mind where we go in space. As I understand it, this Overview Effect is also the sense of the Oneness or the connectedness of all of humanity as well as the connectedness of all of creation. And we’re able to, through the Overview Effect, or this highly transcendent experience, actually feel that incredible Oneness. Spiritual masters and seekers speak about this experience all the time. And, indeed some of the astronauts you interviewed seemed to describe the Overview Effect as a transcendent experience. Is that the right interpretation of the Overview Effect? Maybe you could talk a little about that and the comparison between the Overview Effect and this age-old quest for enlightenment.


Well, this is a really good question that’s not addressed enough when people talk about the Overview Effect. One of the little-noticed aspects of the book is that I define two other changes in consciousness that were built on the Overview Effect, but are slightly different. One is what I called the Copernican perspective. That’s the realization that not only are we a part of a whole system called Earth but the Earth is part of a whole system called the solar system. And then the other change, which I drew from Edgar Mitchell’s experience, was the Universal Insight, and that is the experience of being part of the universe or the galaxy, a much larger whole system. Edgar is happy to call what he experienced the Overview Effect, and he is certainly all right with that phrase. But I felt that his description of what happened to him on the way back from the Moon was really a bigger experience or more complex experience and closer to what the spiritual masters had been talking about, in the sense that he really did talk about realizing his own unity with the entire Cosmos.  One of the things that’s been brought up quite a lot as people have talked about the Overview Effect is that they’ve said, well this sounds like what spiritual teachers have been talking about for years and that is exactly what I thought when I had the experience flying cross country. I thought people living in space settlements would always have an “overview” and they will intuitively know what the spiritual masters have been trying to explain to us. I immediately tied it to what spiritual teachers and philosophers have been saying, so in that sense it’s not necessarily new. It’s just that for the first time in history large numbers of human beings will know it without having to be Zen practitioners or spiritual followers in some way.


It’s interesting that you’re putting it that way because a lot of the spiritual teachings will say that this realization-- and I’m speaking in traditional terms –is within everyone’s grasp so that potentially everyone on the planet can achieve an enlightened state. The challenge for the teacher is to show you what you can only see for yourself. The teacher can only speak in parables. They talk about the “jewel of enlightenment” and the teacher is constantly turning that jewel around and showing the student different facets of it. The true experience of enlightenment is something that the aspirant has to come to on their own, ultimately. And all the teacher can do is point the way. Now, taking the step to the Overview Effect, to be able to gaze upon the whole of the earth, what better way of showing an aspirant that we are all One. We are part of One thing and then to be in orbit and to witness the whole One thing Earth just has to be transformative. I have to think that even for the astronauts who consider themselves unaffected by that experience, emotionally or spiritually, on some level they were indeed transformed.

Maybe now we can turn this conversation to what took place after we actually did start seeing the Earth as a whole for the first time, through the photos and the experiences of  the astronauts. As you point out, the experiences of the astronauts were the experiences of all of humanity. So let’s talk about the impact of that.


Just to add to your previous point, many of the astronauts, including Jeff Hoffman and Sandy Magnus, whom I just interviewed for the recent edition of the book, have talked about what is highly relevant to the spiritual points you’re making. They say the knowledge they gained of the nature of the universe and our place in it is experiential rather than intellectual. And that’s an important distinction. It’s exactly what you’re saying about the really great teachers who can only point you to the experience of enlightenment, they can’t do it in words. So that leads into the effect of the astronaut experiences in that the astronauts, many of them have felt a real responsibility to share the experience with all the rest of us and they tried in many ways. Rusty Schweickart said he wished he could take all the people down there who are fighting over those imaginary lines and bring them into space and say “look, look at what’s important!” So there’s the overview and there’s the effect. The effect hasn’t been as dramatic because only some 500 people have had the experience and they‘ve had to do everything they could through films, posters, talks and everything else to get the message over to the rest of us. However, I think the thing that’s really missed since Yuri Gagarin first experienced this is that there have been dramatic changes in the nature of life on Earth. The most dramatic and easily documented is the environmental causes. In 1960, there really wasn’t a huge global environmental movement. The pictures of the Earth from the moon and videos and everything that’s come from that have become the icon of the movement. It’s become mainstream at this point. People did both small and dramatic things to support environmental awareness and make it real. People really do have a concern that has just been dramatically accelerated by the Overview Effect and the communication of it.

I can’t agree with you more. There has to be linkage there with the acceleration of the environmental movement and those images that came back from space. This speaks to where it’s almost like we’ve had this role to be the agent to seed other worlds with life from Earth. And this is a process that’s been going on since the dawn of our existence, for 10,000 or 50,000 years, depending on how you want to measure that. The trip to the moon was a culmination of thousands of years of technology and capability development, and management of resources that finally allowed us to reach another celestial body. It was euphoric, and the whole world was glued to that event. But it also seems that in that same moment in the sixties we saw this explosion in effort and interest in the environmental movement. You could look at it as a coincidence that it coincided with the moon landing, but I don’t think so. In a sense, it took everything that we had as a technological species to pull together this capability to get us off the planet and by so doing, we actually put a significant strain on the planet. But since we had this mission that had to be completed, those stresses were necessary. Perhaps in another world in another galaxy somewhere that transition or that process might have been a little smoother. Somehow, I imagine on a lot of planets it probably was easier and on some planets it was a lot harder, and some worlds never got to that point at all.  So in that very moment that we actually succeeded in touching another planet instantaneously and quite naturally we turned the camera back on ourselves as a whole planet and it triggered the environment movement. Why? To repair the damage that we have done, right? The strain on the Earth caused by marshalling this technological capability now must be relieved. We have to repair the damage that is done, even as we continue to develop and enhance our space capability. And that’s happening. You’re right that environmental policy has exploded. Unfortunately, we’re also looking at challenges to those environmental laws that were put in place.

So, it seems like everybody saw the planet as One with Apollo, and our minds were transformed overnight. We were all one big happy family and we understood it all. There was clearly a consciousness shift that took place at that time, and a lot of people got that in the 60s, but the reality is that it’s taking decades to play out and may take decades more, or even a 100 years or more, for us to truly get back to a sense of full planetary balance at the same time we are systematically seeding life into the universe.


I think you’re exactly right about that. I think that many space exploration advocates feel that some great opportunity was lost when we got to the moon and then did not go further in to the solar system. But at some subconscious level, when we looked back and saw the Earth, we realized we had to take care of the home planet before we could go out further, that our society was in quite a mess at the time globally. We had to pay attention to the environmental issues but also of issues of war and peace and things of that nature. We have just been consolidating, which is inevitable in a way.

And an interesting subtext here is that we don’t think much of satellites as being part of the Overview Effect. But Jeff Hoffman [astronaut] calls it the “technological Overview Effect.” The communication satellites bring us together as one as well, and it’s interesting that many of the commercial entrepreneurs today who are beginning the next big push into the solar system, like Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos, made their money off the Internet. I really do see the Internet as the child of the Overview Effect in the sense of being the technical part of it.

It’s very clear that the next step isn’t going to be a government program. It’s going to be led by these entrepreneur visionaries who are talking about things that NASA and other space agencies have never really talked about. When Elon Musk says “I want to put 200,000 people on Mars,” you can call it a space settlement or whatever you want to call it, or you can also say that it is seeding life and intelligence throughout the solar system.


When we cancelled the moon program, there was a lot of disappointment, but what was driving us to go there in the first place, that impulse to expand out into space, that never died and is  always there. There has been a significant amount of regrouping and the hard realization that people are coming around to is that NASA is not going to be the be-all-and-end-all agency that’s going to make it happen. Clearly, folks are moving away from that paradigm, and that’s exciting.


People are realizing that if you think about the origins of NASA, it was actually created in response to a Soviet challenge and it fulfilled its purpose and  reached its highest moment in 1969. And NASA did play a major role in creating the International Space Station along with other countries. NASA has wished to find something to do that would have the same impact as the glory days of Apollo, but I believe strongly that the space policy that is in place right now, which is encouraging NASA to be more cooperative with the private sector, is an appropriate policy. So I think that it’s going in the right direction.

And the other piece of it is what I write about in The New Camelot, the untold story is that President John F. Kennedy really believed even at that early stage of Apollo that it would be better to have a global cooperative space program rather than a group of national competing programs. He gave a speech at the United Nations not long before his death saying he believed that not only should the US and the Soviet Union land on the moon but all countries on the globe should participate. In fact, he had been reaching out to the Soviet leaders all along, trying to get them to work with him on a joint moon mission.

With the trauma of the assassination, most people don’t remember that speech, and what happened is that the story persisted that Kennedy was all about competing with the Soviets and was essentially a cold warrior. The other story was not told. It’s now coming out. I got most of this from John Logsdon’s most recent book, John F. Kennedy and the Race to the Moon. If Kennedy had lived, that next step from the moon plus the environmental awareness might well have all happened together. We’ll never know what might have happened. The point is that that potential was there for a global program, which is now emerging again, there are many more cooperative efforts among nations and space exploration that that is the essence. If the message of the Overview Effect is environmental sustainability and peace on earth, the message has to be that we need a global or human space program rather than a cacophony of national programs. 

End Part 1