Can Astronaut Thinking Heal America at Last?

  • Author Frank White coined the term the Overview Effect to describe the change in many astronauts’ worldview after viewing Earth from space, prompting them to envision a more harmonious world.
  • Though it languished for years, the idea is finally gaining traction with the promise of private space travel and hopelessly divided societies.

Apollo 17 astronaut Eugene Cernan was the last man to walk on the moon and the first to tag it with graffiti. He wrote his daughter’s initials — TDC — on the dusty surface of the desolate Taurus-Littrow valley before heading home. In space’s infinite darkness, Cernan would gaze down at our planet in wonder and think: “That’s humanity, love, feeling and thought. You don’t see the barriers of color or religion and politics that divide this world. You wonder, if you could get everyone in the world up here, wouldn’t they have a different feeling — a new perspective?”

Cernan, who died in 2017, described his experiences in a book called The Overview EffectSpace Exploration and Human Evolution by outer space philosopher Frank White. It was first published in 1987 and tells the dramatic change in many astronauts’ worldview after viewing Earth from space. Astronaut Michael Collins said the best crew for a space mission would be a philosopher, a priest and a poet. The book came about in part when White, a lover of space, was on a cross-country plane flight and had an epiphany gazing at the landscape below. If everyone could get an “overview” of Earth like future space settlers would, he thought, they would grasp our interconnectedness and be forever moved to protect the planet and each other. He came up with a term: the Overview Effect.

White, 76, has spent more than 30 years trying to spread the Overview Effect message. For a long time, it seemed like nobody was listening. But White never gave up, and his efforts are finally bearing fruit. Today, the Harvard International Negotiation Program is exploring how to use the Overview Effect to mitigate the “tribes effect,” a divisive mindset that fosters conflict. The effort could not be more timely, White says, given the recent mob violence in the U.S. Capitol. White constantly receives emails from people and groups around the world wanting to know how “astronaut thinking” can help them do better. Last spring, celebrity astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson joined the chorus about the Overview Effect’s power for our planet.

White was in a fever when he first published his book. He was 43 and certain it would sell 100,000 copies and launch a global revolution in thinking — and secure a life for him of writing books to further it. It didn’t happen. White started to go broke. He was a Harvard grad and a Rhodes scholar and felt like a failure because he hadn’t changed the world. He ended up with a 17-year communications career in alumni affairs and development at Harvard. The work was meaningful, but it wasn’t his calling. White pressed on, speaking about the Overview Effect outside his day job. Thirty-four years after the book was published, White has become one of the most respected figures on outer space, and it happened without the heft of a prominent academic or scientific career, or one connected to a space agency.

If the crew on the International Space Station behaved the way we’re behaving, they would not be able to survive.

Frank White

A new generation of change-makers has seized upon the idea in ways unimaginable in 1987. Annahita Nezami, a London psychologist, did her doctorate on the therapeutic value of the Overview Effect. She started Virtual Reality Overview Effect (VROE), a company that’s releasing a pilot project this month as a “meaning-driven technology” for use with psychotherapy and a tool for individuals and groups. Jeremy Nickel, a Unitarian Universalist minister in Colorado, has started a burgeoning online spiritual community, EvolVR, that uses the Overview Effect in twice-weekly virtual reality meditations.

“The stories we tell over and over again are important to how we see the world and how we move in the world,” says Nickel. “For a few thousand years we’ve been telling ourselves stories that don’t really work very well: about dominion over the Earth, over its creatures, over other human beings. We have needed a new human myth for a long time. The Overview Effect is essential to getting a new story out there about the truth that we’re intimately connected.” For those who have the money, two of the best ways to experience the Overview Effect will be private suborbital space flight and trips to the stratosphere on a high-altitude balloon.

2016 Nantucket Film Festival Day 2

Frank White speaks during the 2016 Nantucket Film Festival.

Source Nicholas Hunt/Getty

Indigenous geographer Deondre Smiles, a postdoctoral scholar at Ohio State, recently warned about the dangers of bringing a colonial mentality to exploring space in an article in the journal Society & Space. Smiles says the Overview Effect is an “uplifting” perspective to strive toward, but it should not become a utopian vision when it comes to living in space. We won’t leave societal conflict behind by leaving Earth, Smiles says. “Our history has to figure into the way we’re engaging with outer space exploration,” he says, and that can’t include the same environmental destruction or social dispossession. 

Multinational treaties signed by the U.S. and others currently require space exploration to function for the global — and peaceful — benefit of humankind. White is in the process of co-founding the nonprofit Human Space Program designed to, he says, “ensure the sustainable, inclusive and ethical evolution into the solar ecosystem.” The organization will create reports, make recommendations and raise the “big questions” about living in and exploring space to governments and private enterprise. Those big questions are going to be difficult to solve. One of its goals is to work with key players in the environmental movement to ensure that space exploration benefits Earth ecologically, as well as the entire solar system.

White lives outside Boston with his wife of 25 years, Donna. He has a calm, gentle, yet authoritative manner — like a good meditation teacher. As with astronauts he’s interviewed, Star Trek played an important role in White’s love of space exploration; so did the science fiction of Isaac Asimov and Arthur C. Clarke. He’s also passionate about artificial intelligence and robotics. White has written one book about AI, and he and his wife bought their English cocker spaniel, Bella, a robotic dog for Christmas to keep her company.

White once considered pursuing national politics as a career, like many of his peers at Harvard and Oxford. Instead, he spread the Overview Effect message, even though the response for years was crickets. It was like “throwing a Hail Mary pass,” White says, that took forever to be caught but has landed at a time when our earthbound divisions seem as stark as ever.

“We’re all on a planet together and that planet is finite, and it’s moving through the universe and we are its crew,” White says. “If the crew on the International Space Station behaved the way we’re behaving, they would not be able to survive. We have a choice as to whether we’re going to work together and keep the spaceship functioning — or not.”

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