I came across this well produced video that captures much of the essential elements of the philosophy of The Obligation. The fellow in the video does a wonderful job.
A Conversation with Frank White - Part 2
Here is the long promised Part 2 of my amazing conversation with Frank White. That it has taken me more than two years to do so is embarrassing to be sure. In similar cases of tardiness, I might simply opt to forget the whole project and move on. However, in re-reading the content of this Part 2 of my conversation with Frank White the other day, I realized that making these words public far outweighs any personal embarrassment I might feel.
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 want to switch back to a more philosophical topic. I pulled out a passage that maybe we could talk about. On page 99, you say, “Humanity, as it becomes more aware of the forces at work, has the singular opportunity to guide and shape our own evolution, working in conscious partnership of the whole.” That statement is a statement of conscious evolution, which would be parallel to the Seventh Endowment in The Obligation. Is this something you can elaborate on?
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.
Leveraging Lunar Assets for Sustainable Pathways to Space
November 9-13, 2014
Waikoloa Beach Marriott Resort & Spa
Waikoloa, Hawai‘i Island
Click here for agenda and registration information!
The State of Hawaii, in collaboration with the Pacific International Space Center for Exploration Systems (PISCES) and the Aerospace States Association (ASA), will be hosting a multinational conference on the Big Island of Hawaii this fall to explore options for developing sustainable pathways to space, with an emphasis on leveraging our Moon’s strategic assets (e.g., near-Earth location, diverse regolith, orbital periodicity, gravitational field) in ways that can minimize the risks of space exploration/development/utilization while maximizing returns on investment. The primary goal will be to characterize and detail cost-effective strategies that can accelerate the maturation of revolutionary technologies to both extend humanity’s reach through the solar system (to asteroids, Mars and its moons, and beyond) and enhance the qualities of life on our home planet.
The conference will support three discussion tracks focusing on:
Click here for agenda and registration information!
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 (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
Okay. I know that the Biosphere 2 project was sketchy science and the brainchild of someone who has been described as the leader of a fringe cult.
But none of that really matters to me. I miss the idea that someone, ANYONE, would spend $150 Million to build a test bed for the human settlement of space. It was a bold stroke that suggested that private citizens might be able to take on the challenge of opening space to colonization--something the government has been unable and unwilling to consider.
Sure, I wish Biosphere 2 was done with more scientific rigor and transparency. I wish it managed expectations of the media and the public more effectively. And I wish the planners had not bet everything on an all-or-nothing gamble on an untested 2-year mission.
But, I don't care. I still think Biosphere 2 was a great idea.
So, let me say it. Thank you Ed Bass and John Allen and the whole Biosphere 2 crew: Roy Walford, Jane Poynter, Taber MacCallum, Mark Nelson, Sally Silverstone, Abigail Alling, Mark Van Thillo and Linda Leigh. You took a stab at something great. You engaged in an unprecedented experiment that yielded useful data. You left behind a world class research facility. Any space settlement research effort in the future will want to study and learn from what you have done. What could possibly be wrong with that?
Though some think Bass and Allen eccentric, they were right about one thing. They understood that if we are ever going to build a self-sustaining large scale human habitat in space we needed to build one here on Earth first. Anyone excited about human settlement of space has to feel some nostalgia for what Biosphere 2 aspired to achieve.
And, yes, I'm glad the Biosphere 2 facilities are in the responsible hands of the University of Arizona, and that they are being used to advance extremely valuable Earth science research.
But, still, I miss its bolder extraterrestrial purpose.
Russel Crowe as Jor-El (Superman's father in "Man of Steel") surveying the destruction of Krypton
The Superman origin story to me is the ultimate cautionary tale for our own planet. Like Krypton, the Earth exists in a hostile universe that threatens to consume us at any moment -- even without comic book intergalactic bad guys bent on our destruction. The Earth is not likely to explode in a dramatic fire ball like Krypton, but out gassing from a supervolcano, for example, could indeed be the end of civilization as we know it, and perhaps result in extinction of humankind. That's not the only catastrophe that could do us in, of course. Other end-of-the-World threats include, but are not limited to, asteroid impacts, solar eruptions, global pandemic, nuclear holocaust, and maybe even a superstorm.
The fact that we are not treating global warming as a crisis in need of drastic changes in public policy around CO2 emissions is frightening, and far too similar to the way that Kryptonians ignored the warnings of Jor-El, the father of Kal-El (aka, Superman). Eerily like the leadership of Krypton, our own global leaders are mostly taking a blind eye to this existential threat.
What makes our situation worse, in my opinion, is that we don't seem to have anyone like Jor-El building a spaceship that could take at least some of our population away from the planet should the need arise. If this world should go up in smoke unexpectedly, we have no fall back plan--or no lifeboat as my friend William E. Burrows would say. Maybe Mars One could be the beginning of that kind of lifeboat ,or ark, for humankind. But, how embarrassing that the survival of our species may be left to private citizens. Where are the elected leaders on this issue? I am surprised, but also I'm not surprised, unfortunately.
We need a global commitment to space settlement within 50 years. Not missions to Mars, not a base on the Moon, not asteroid mining. The goal must be settlement. The rest of it is just the stuff we do on the way to that goal. Nothing less should be acceptable because the status of settlement implicitly means that the colonists could, if necessary, continue to exist and thrive should the supply lines to Earth be cut off without warning. So let's be clear. If we ever do get in trouble the way Krypton did, there just isn't another Earth-like planet with a friendly population where we can send one or more of our survivors (even if we did have a ship to put them in). That Earth-like place, if it is ever to exist, will be created in the void by human hands, sweat and treasure.
I know Superman is just a kid's comic book created by a couple of New York nerds in the 1930's. But, there is wisdom in that simple story we should heed. Our world is a fragile marble in the sea of space, and now that we have the means to build lifeboats beyond our world, we simply must begin to do so.
The children we send out into space to find new homes will indeed be supermen and superwomen in their own way. Whether it's flying under their own power in low gravity space habitats, or lifting object with ease on Mars that on Earth not even the strongest man could budge. What we sorely lack, however, are the Jor-El's of this world to send them on their way.
Frank White got it right when he recognized the transformative effect that visually experiencing the whole earth can have on an individual's consciousness. Astronauts have consistently remarked that the things that divide the world population appear insignificant when viewed from 250 miles away from the planet. The Overview film produced by Planetary Collective was inspired by Frank's seminal work, The Overview Effect: Space Exploration and Human Evolution. The film is probably the best way to experience the Overview Effect short of actually flying into space ourselves.
Without much effort the Overview film has received over 2.6 million plays since it was posted on Vimeo in December. This is a film, however, that deserves to be seen by everyone. Please watch it if you haven't already and share it as widely as possible. Whatever we can do to move our collective consciousness to a World-centric perspective from a nation-centric one will serve to bring our planet closer to balance and stability. This film is a huge step in that direction.