A Conversation with Frank White - Part 2
Since the posting of Part 1 of the conversation, Frank White has published an update new edition of the The Overview Effect (AIAA, Reston,VA). To my surprise and honor, Frank included excerpts of this interview in this revised edition. The revised book also references my own work, The Obligation. I am truly grateful for this collaboration. In many ways, reading The Overview Effect when it first came out was the launch pad for my own exploration into the broader evolutionary dimension of human space flight that led me to the insight of The Obligation. And for that I am deeply indebted to Frank and value his personal friendship.
It has been an astounding two and half years since Frank and I had our conversation. While the topics we discussed are still very relevant today, the backdrop in the space arena, and my personal connection to it, has changed dramatically. Frank and I spoke of the emerging commercial space market in 2013. Since then, private investment is space ventures exceeds all such investments of the previous 15 years. New companies like Planet Labs, Terra Bella (formerly Google Skybox), and Made in Space are disrupting the space industry in positive and exciting ways. Combined with cheaper access and advanced software analytics, the space sector is on a clear path to reaching the tipping point that space advocates have been dreaming about for many decades.
Since 2013, I have been fortunate enough to join the ranks of those who are helping to accelerate the progress of commercial space by becoming the Deputy Executive Director of SpaceCom (the Space Commerce Conference and Exposition) held in Houston, TX, November 15-17.
But as I said earlier, the 2013 conversation with Frank White still holds up, and perhaps is more relevant now more than ever. Please read Part 1 of this interview first.
Exactly. To the point, if you’re talking about a permanent facility that could be a settlement on the moon or Mars, you’re talking about needing the kind of resources that no single country, even the United State, can handle on its own. So there is a practical dimension to that. And then of course that kind of endeavor needs justification, so you also need the entrepreneurial and commercial sector involved who are providing the economic drivers that will not only help to build the facility but will also have an ongoing and sustainable rationale for being there.
There are so many stakeholders, and that’s why this whole discussion of the private sector vs. the public sector is getting to be a non-argument. It’s one thing to do one-off exploration missions. Maybe the XPrize Foundation can help to support such things, and nations can send out probes and maybe sponsor manned missions. But when you’re talking about permanent facilities, and the ISS is the most obvious example, it takes a collective effort. How do we bring all these stakeholders together, from the government, from private sect, entrepreneurs, or wealthy individuals, like Elon Musk, Bill Gate, Jeff Bezos? How are they going to participate, both as investors and contributors; and how are all these pieces going to come together? To me that’s the next big challenge; starting to look at how all of these various stakeholders can come together under a singular project to construct a substantial lunar base or Martian base. Maybe it starts out with a couple hundred people, but is designed at the outset for growth, to expand to a few thousand and eventually millions of inhabitants.
I agree. The truth is that dichotomizing public and private is like dichotomy between robots and humans in space. It’s not necessary to set up an apparent conflict. Obviously, during the great eras of exploration and settlement in the past, government and private enterprise worked together and when you think about the way our economies work today there is no pure free market system. And there are relative few pure socialist or other collective systems. It’s all a mixed economy and so it’s a matter of balance. I think we’ve clearly seen that big government is not going to fund a robust effort at space settlement and moving out into solar system in ways that space advocates would want. But government can continue to facilitate private enterprise trying to do that.
You’re absolutely right. I always cringe a little when I hear some space advocates say that we just have to get the government out of the way and let the private sector do what it’s going to do and the solar system will be settled in no time. What we’re talking about is a human effort. I may happen to work for NASA, and you may happen to work for a private company, but we are essentially trying to do the same thing.
I think it’s very much in line with The Obligation. Barbara Marx Hubbard has written about conscious evolution as well. It’s a simple understanding that we are probably for the first time ever at a point where we can sit back and think about how we want to evolve. To some extent, our evolution has been guided by forces we didn’t really understand, that we didn’t really grasp. And now we can think about how we want to evolve, biologically, intellectually, spiritually, economically, and beyond. Because what we ought to understand is that once people start leaving the planet in large numbers, things will change. We’re going to have new political systems, new economic systems, and we’re going to have new social systems.
One of the things I’m trying to do is create an initiative on space exploration and development at Harvard and other universities where academics can think about that and imagine as we get out on this new frontier how we can do so thoughtfully and avoid some of the mistakes that have been made in the past. [note: FW has begun this initiative called "The Academy in Space Initiative"] The great era exploration of the 15th century and 16th century was not without really serious casualties of indigenous people. We don’t want to do that again. There is also the fact that, in terms of evolution, we’re beginning to understand enough about the genome and bioengineering and other technologies that we can begin to affect our own physical evolution. It’s very clear that we’re in unknown territory when we start thinking about people living permanently in zero gravity, or one G, or two G. We know physiological change begins to occur in zero gravity and as we look ahead one of the things Peter Diamandis pointed out to me when I wrote the first edition of the book was that we should think about speciation, which occurs naturally when a population is isolated from the main gene pool and subjected to forces that cause mutations.
These mutations are more likely to survive and then you have a new species. I’ve called it Homo Spaciens, that is to say a new species that far more adaptable to life off planet Earth. And to your point about conscious evolution, is it possible that in addition to just allowing those forces to take place and seeing what would happen, we’re now at the point where we might want to change ourselves in such a way as to be more adaptable to life in those environments.
This raises a lot of interesting questions, ethically, morally, and politically. We haven’t even really begun to think about it, and when I bring it up, people are shocked. But why is it the case that we think humanity will go out and start living in free space and in zero gravity and on other planets and it’ll still just be the same human body? This physical system that we have now is well adapted to living on this planet, period.
What you’re pointing out is one of the things that is going to make folks the most queasy about what the future holds for us in space. We do like to think about the Star Trek future where basically everybody looks like us. Even most of the aliens look like us. But the thought that there would be speciation, where humankind would evolve to something else beyond Homo Sapiens is a challenging thought for a lot of people. Also, conscious evolution speaks to being conscious of this path that we are on. I call it the Obligation.
I’ve concluded more or less this is an impulse to expand beyond Earth that was part of who we are from the beginning of our ascent. And certainly that ties in very closely to the Overview Effect, that we are an evolving species and that humankind has a role in this evolutionary process that is going to take us beyond this planet. So the question then is about this knowledge that we’re talking about, and that you articulated so well in the Overview Effect. Having this knowledge, what impact should that knowledge have on society? So for example, if there was a way for folks to essentially agree with what we’re saying, “Well, okay, I can see that humankind is not just here out of happenstance, and that actually our presence on this planet is undeniably linked to life expanding into space.” What could that potentially mean, especially if you could get that message out there in a way that it could actually sink in? How does that help this whole process move forward?
Well, you’ve asked the big question. I think the answer is that we would want to do what we are doing through writing and speaking and through founding organizations like the Overview Institute to get this message out. At some point, we would want to take action that would have even more impact. By beginning to exert more powerful influence on society as it is today. The problem is that it would take money. So you need people who believe and have the wherewithal to actually fund it. I think it would take a very vigorous organization and it would need to be a global organization that would begin to look at what is happening on the planet today and beginning to take action to bend events in the direction that we’re are talking about. So, for example, it would be an organization that would strongly support the International Space Exploration Coordination Group. This is a group of some 14 national space agencies that is working together to create a global space program. They are doing exactly what we’re talking about. You also want to bring up the discussion about: is this migration off the planet going to be everybody or for some people? What is the shape of it? It would make a huge difference if we started having scholarships for people to go on Virgin Galactic flights. It would be similar to the environmental movement where you begin to take action to get people to change their behavior. There is an old trinity in the communications field called awareness-knowledge-behavior. To change what’s going on in the world, you have to first create awareness of the issue. Then you have to transmit knowledge about what needs to be done. Then you transmit knowledge about the nature of the problem and then you try to get people to change their behavior. You, Steve, were doing it back in the day. You were trying to get a law passed encouraging space settlement.
Well, what we’ve done so far is to create the awareness. The Overview Effect has gone from being a little known concept to being much better known since the film was made by Planetary Collective. I think we need to keep doing that. And then we need to start sharing the knowledge of what it all means through books like The Obligation and the Overview Effect. I have to give credit to a guy I met named Bill Bloomfield who has been involved in advocacy work for many years around social issues and he said that “I get everything you’re talking about, but what is the advocacy part? What am I advocating?” And he kind of forced me to get into the idea that I’ve been mentioning, which is that if having the experience of the Overview Effect is so important both to the individual and to the society, then we need to find a way to let everybody have it. I’m calling it a basic human right.
I like that, because it would change the whole dynamic, if by virtue of the fact that you were a citizen of the planet you were entitled to at least one trip into space. That would change things dramatically.
Or at least you should be entitled to one highly effective simulation of a trip. Something that gives you the experience so that you know what we’re talking about. It’s not fair that only a few people have it.
Talking about whole advocacy, you and I have been exchanging ideas about how we can get that “Rosa Parks” moment for the space movement. Unfortunately, the analogy between the space movement and the civil rights movement only goes so far. We have to appreciate that. But I do think that there is perhaps a “If you build it, they will come” approach. I’ve always thought that what we needed is a serious coalition of individuals, organizations, nations, and corporations that will come together focused on building the first space settlement. That coalition would declare that we are dead serious about answering fundamental questions about what it’s going to take to put a settlement on Mars, or on the moon. And we will answer not only the technical questions but also the financing question, as well as the legal and political questions that need to be answered. We will begin to formulate a concrete framework that can be developed and refined year after year. That coalition eventually would be the organization or entity that would facilitate the construction and management of that colony. That’s the way I’ve always seen how the creation of the first settlement will unfold. We are saying, “Let’s just start doing it with the people who want to do it.” And once you have an earnest body engaged in that way and it’s sufficiently funded, then you have the stake in the ground. And once you have that, you’re able to point to something that’s really exciting and stimulate a dialogue around that. So if people say we shouldn’t be going to Mars, well fine, let’s debate that.
I would add one thing to that. I heard a Harvard professor say in a talk regarding sustainability; you can calculate it based on several variables. And one of the variables that affects sustainability of life on earth is population. And as he was talking it occurred to me that the one thing he wasn’t thinking about is, what if we removed some portion of the population, which is the old Gerard K. O’Neil idea? We move people off the Earth and it’s going to be better for the Earth. One thing this group you’re proposing is what would it look like to settle in a sustainable way, a billion people in the solar system? We could relieve some of the environmental challenges to the Earth. What would it look like to have a very large number of people living in the solar system, and beginning consider the solar system to be our environment? Not only how could we do it, but I think the big issue for environmentalist about space exploration is, “Hey, Steve, you just want to go screw up Mars now. Frank, you want to mess up the moon.”
So, in order to get support for this enterprise, there are two things that need to be dealt with. Environmentalists and liberal political thinkers are going to say that, like the movie Elysium, are you just going to have a place on the moon for all the rich people? And they’re just going to trash the moon, and the poor people can’t get there. I think those are two critical issues: the environment and equality. If the space settlement movement movement says, “Get government out of the way and we’re just going to go do whatever we want,” it’s not going to get support. It’s going to generate huge opposition. I’d like to say, “If you think the big problem for the Earth is people, we’re suggesting that we reduce the burden of people on the Earth.” However, let’s be sure that if we say we’re going to put one billion people out there in the solar system, we’re going to think about the environment beforehand, not after. We should think about whether we’re going to put a rover on Mars with nuclear power, which we just did. And the reason that it happened is that environmentalists are so concerned about the Earth, (rightly so) that they’re not thinking about how we’re powering spacecraft on Mars, and they should be. I am really am exciting what Curiosity is discovering, but I am concerned that it’s powered by nuclear fuel. And that there was no discussion of that.
It’s interesting that you are bringing that up, especially when you’re talking to a larger audience that doesn’t see space expansion as we do, and actually sees it as, “now that we’ve trashed Earth we’re going to trash the rest of the solar system, and that can’t be a good thing.” I have to agree with you that there is going to need to be a degree of care taken as we begin to engage in this way. Unfortunately, there are people out there who will say that “because you can’t guarantee that humans will behave in an environmentally responsible or equitable way, then we should not do it. We should just stay here and live our days- if it’s 1000 or 1 million years – we shouldn’t be looking outward.” I try to be respectful of that attitude. Whether it’s nuclear devices that are fueling our spacecraft or protecting the pristine beauty of the moon from industrialization. I would imagine that when we start construction on the moon, there will be a desire to preserve it, and not just completely cover the moon in habitats and heavy industry. We should develop the moon, respecting that in its natural state, the moon is something worth preserving.
Of course, we don’t know what the human course will take 1000 or 2000 years from now. It’s just something we can’t possibly foresee. At the same time, we can’t let those possibilities make us timid. We are at a very important cusp right now that you well know in terms of our capability. There is a lot of excitement in terms of what is going on in the private sector, but it’s still a very fragile state that we’re in. And frankly it would not take much politically for our whole society to turn back inward and away from space capability altogether. Then this opportunity could potentially be lost for thousands of years, or altogether. As we well know, there is no guarantee that we’re going to make it. Even though you and I believe that there is this evolutionary impulse that’s driving us toward this transplanetary migration. This impulse is driving us toward that but there’s no guarantee what’s going to happen.
I’m reminded of what Richard Gott, a Princeton astrophysicist, theorized that every developing civilization on a planet reaches a certain point where it’s ready to take that leap into space, and there is a window of opportunity for that to happen, and if we don't make that leap during that window than we kind of lose our chance. I don't think the impulse ever goes away. So, say for example, the government stayed shut down permanently, because of political gridlock, and we’re not going to make it, and this is the beginning of a dystopic society, that impulse for and desire for human expansion into space still burns, is still throbbing within us. There will always be people who will want to fulfill that impulse. I recommend the Parable of the Sower by Octavia Butler. It’s a wonderful story of a dystopic society where the American government has collapsed and people are left to fend for themselves. Butler paints a very bleak landscape. But even in the midst of all this, the main character’s one goal in life is to seed the universe with human life. We are Starseed, she says. In the midst of these terrible conditions, people just trying to survive, there’s this almost religious movement that starts up that is committed to expanding life beyond earth. It’s always been an interesting thought to me and also a reminder that no matter how bleak things get, there is always the potential for people to rise up above even the worse conditions.
I think the principle is correct that there is nothing guaranteed in the sense that we have no idea how to build a Saturn rocket any more, and we don’t have any Saturn rockets today. They were created to go to the moon and it’s been stated many times that all the plans and knowledge to do it were not well preserved after it happened. So looking at some of the ideas NASA is coming up with now for deep space exploration they are really reinventing the wheel, aren’t they? We could easily lose the ability to take this next step and when you look at the precarious nature of the environmental and political situation on Earth it certainly wouldn’t take very much to set us back so far that it would be awfully hard to get there. Carl Sagan had a similar idea to that of Richard Gott. Sagan said, a civilization that creates enough technology to get into outer space may also create enough technology to destroy itself. And we have done that, haven’t we? We could do either one right now. And this goes back to conscious evolution. We have a choice.
That also comes back to a need for a collective awakening if we can bring to the spiritual dimension. We have this power to destroy ourselves and so we do need to wake up as a human family and realize that we are really all in it together. Clearly, there are places on this planet where the thought of such a thing could not be further from what people are imagining, given their situation. I’m thinking of Syria or parts of Africa or other hot spots around the world. And there is a political polarity in our country where people are perfectly willing to put our whole way of life at risk based on certain principles that they have, and the divisiveness. It’s a challenge, and that’s a downer.
So, how can we end this conversation on an upbeat note?
I think there is an upbeat note that Barbara Marx Hubbard captures very well when she talks about the “birth of a cosmic humanity” and the metaphor that the birth can be both difficult and scary. This is a difficult and scary time, but on the other hand you can begin to see the labor pains. One of things that has given me great encouragement is the Overview film, which has been out there for a couple of years now and seen by over seven million people. There’s no advertising budget behind it. There’s been no big promotional scheme. It’s been word of mouth. One of the things I wanted to do in the revised edition of The Overview Effect is to include some of the comments people have made having seen that film. The vast majority of the comments are “This is it!” – “This is what we need to understand”- “We are one”- “We are one species.” “We’re already in space.”
That film is very powerful. For a lot people, imagery speaks louder than words. And I think you’re right. There are many, many people who are urgently working to do the right thing, not only in the space arena but also in terms of trying to bring the planet together as a human family, and to resolve issues. As we continue to march forward and all the things you’re doing and all the other people in the space arena are doing to continue to spread this Overview message is going to be critical. All that we can do,is what we can do. So every advocate out there who is engaged in some capacity is trying to move society to some degree. I hope that, at the end off the day, we’ll achieve that end before it’s impossible for us to do so. That’s really all that we can do.
And you know the Rosa Parks moment that you’re talking about come from one of the people that commented on the overview film. That person may be out there. The one that has the knack for taking a stand that ignites a movement. The ideas that were swirling around when Rosa Parks refused to get up from her seat on the bus are ideas going way back. The dignity of every person, for example. The whole movement for civil rights under Martin Luther King, Jr. He learned a lot from Mahatma Gandhi who learned a lot from Jesus. It’s all connected. There is an Overview Effect of time as many of my colleagues like to emphasize. There is a continuity of this movement through time as well. I honestly am optimistic.
So am I. You are probably like me, always meeting and talking to people who are really committed to this particular cause in one way or another, and they are trying to push it forward, whether they’re in NASA, with a private company, or just a private individual. I believe we will have a Rosa Parks moment. I don’t know what it will look like. I don’t know if it will look like a Rosa Parks event, but I think there will be one. Ultimately, if we’re going to make this transition folks are going to have be confronted with the Overview Effect and the Obligation, and hear that it’s something we have to do. So, for the folks who might be afraid of what that means will ultimately want their voices heard too, and there will be an objection, similar to any objections that have occurred in the past when massive changes are underway. So we’ll get at some point a backlash from people that say, “What wrong with this planet? We don’t need to go out into space. God gave us this planet and he doesn’t want us to go any other place.” So we’ll get that more vociferously. Right now, the whole dialogue we’ve been engaged in the last 30-40 years has not risen to that level. Most people still don’t give space exploration a lot of thought. But when we really start getting close, that’s when I think folks will start to wake up, and then there’ll be a heated dialogue. I hope we’ll get past that dialogue and then it will be full speed ahead.
One of the things that we haven’t mentioned and that is really very important is the idea advanced by David Beaver about a cognitive shift and a lot of Buckminster Fuller and a lot of people have talked about it. One of the awakening points has to be an understanding that we are aready in space. We’ve always been in space, we always will be. We’re on a spaceship called Earth. That’s where we are. The real decision is not are we going into space, because that’s where we are today. The real decision is: are we going to create the capacity to leave the Earth or not? Because when we go to Mars we will be in space, when we go to the moon we’ll be in space. We’re already there. And this goes back in a funny way to your point about spiritual traditions because what the Buddha said: you’re already a Buddha. You’re already there, you just don’t get it. It’s the same thing.
That’s great. Actually that’s a great note to end this interview on.
Yes. We can’t get any better than that.