January 21, 2020

On the ‘overview effect’

An interview with Frank White

This is an edited transcript of Ceridwen Dovey’s interview with American writer Frank White, which took place on July 3, 2018.

Ceridwen Dovey You mention in an article that your father was passionate about aerial photography, and that you absorbed some of his passion for viewing the Earth from afar. What do you think of the argument that humans are quick to adapt to wonder – that there will be no lasting “overview effect” once we’re going up into space as routinely as we get on transcontinental flights? I’m sure the first passengers who flew on aeroplanes had life-altering perspective on life on Earth afterwards. But now we hardly look out the window; we close the blinds, and stare at movies on small screens instead. Is there anything we can do to make sure this wonder-fatigue doesn’t happen with space travel?

Frank White I have had this question asked before, and the answer depends on how you define “the overview effect”. When I first articulated the idea, I was interested in how it would affect space settlers if they could always see the Earth from a distance. I hypothesised that they would take for granted insights about the planet and ourselves that we have been trying to grasp for thousands of years, i.e., that the Earth is an interconnected whole system, and we are a part of it. I did not see it as an extraordinary experience, but something ordinary.

I started interviewing astronauts as proxies for space settlers, and I found that for many of them it was an extraordinary experience that “never got old”. This is something that I heard from astronauts who were on the International Space Station for several months, so that wonder may remain in place, at some level, for permanent space settlers.

We should bear in mind that people flying on commercial airliners are always more or less at the same distance from Earth. What changes for them is the ground track below. Future space explorers may find new sources of wonder and shifts in awareness as they move out to greater distances from the Earth. For example, the Earth will look different from the Moon than from Mars, and it will look different from a settlement in free space than from a planetary surface.

Perhaps one analogy is the Moon, which we sometimes take for granted in the night sky. There are times when we pay very little attention to it, and other times when we say, “Oh, that is so beautiful.” Circumstances are very important in how we might perceive it.

Our response depends, to some extent, on the individual’s willingness to experience wonder and gratitude in a variety of circumstances.

CD As you would of course know, astronauts in the Outer Space Treaty are defined as “envoys of mankind”, and certain special laws apply to their rescue and return in the Rescue Agreement. Now that we are getting closer to having other kinds of astronauts venturing into space (for example, combatant astronauts, or space tourists, or commercial prospectors), do you think all astronauts still deserve that special status as “envoys” (with its legal protections)?

FW In the foreseeable future, I would still provide them with that status. There may come a time when there are so many people living and working in the solar system that giving them those protections is simply not practical. For now, though, I would say they are still envoys of humanity.

CD What do you think about the problems of space tourism in its current incarnation: that for quite a long time it will still only be the extremely wealthy who have the privilege of gaining the overview effect? Does it trouble you that an individual like Elon Musk, simply by dint of being super wealthy, can single-handedly decide that he wants to make us an “interplanetary species”? Do you not feel that part of what the overview effect should impart is a very deep humility about ourselves as individuals, that nobody should be able to make that decision alone for our entire species?

FW Regarding the extremely wealthy experiencing the overview effect, this does not bother me in the short term, though it would be an issue if it persists for a long time. When I interviewed Sir Richard Branson for the third edition of my book [The Overview Effect], he talked passionately about “democratising space”. He is planning to follow the model of air travel, which was initially expensive and reserved for the wealthy, but is now available to many more people. I imagine that Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk have a similar model. I am also hoping that some of those who go on the first flights will use their wealth and influence to share their experiences of the overview effect widely and in a positive way.

Moreover, there are ways to use this opportunity to democratise space travel in the short term. It doesn’t have to be only the wealthy who make the trip. For example, I am on the advisory council of Space for Humanity, an innovative organisation founded by Dylan Taylor. We are planning to send many deserving people­ – who otherwise would not be able to go – into orbit or on high-altitude balloon flights so that they can experience versions of the overview effect and then return to be Space for Humanity ambassadors, sharing their experiences with the world. (And we hope they will change it for the better.)

Regarding Elon Musk making the decision for humanity to become a multi-planet species: we are not going to get very far in our migration into the solar system without individuals in the private sector pursuing their own visions of this great adventure. At the same time, I do believe the people of this planet ought to have a say in what happens. For that reason, I am working to bring into being the Human Space Program (HSP). This will be a comprehensive, sustainable and inclusive blueprint for exploring and developing the solar system. We envision 16 task forces working on the ethical, environmental and economic issues that confront us as we move outward. A program like HSP will give everyone an opportunity to weigh in on questions like the ones you raise.

CD Is there any aspect of the Overview Institute’s work that is concerned with establishing a code of conduct or ethical norms that should govern how we interact in space, drawing on those powerful spiritual experiences of astronauts, so that there are at least some rules of engagement to guide the behaviour of all the thousands of future astronauts before they’re up there? Or trying to fund world leaders on trips to space, the people who have the most power to change how we do things on Earth? Or funding a purely humanitarian trip? Do you think even somebody as seemingly closed-minded as President Trump would be changed from a trip to space?

FW The Overview Institute is not trying to establish specific codes of conduct or ethical norms at this time. However, our expectation is that there will be new ways of thinking that will result from the experience of the overview effect (“overview thinking”), and we would hope that this would lead to different kinds of behaviour. I would say that the Human Space Program project will explore ethical norms in some detail.

Regarding world leaders going into orbit or beyond, a number of astronauts mentioned that to me in interviews for my book, and it is a vision that many of us in the overview movement embrace. I recall one astronaut saying something like, “If they saw what we saw, they couldn’t make the decisions they are making.”

I believe that anyone can be changed by experiencing the overview effect. However, they would have to be open to it. As Apollo astronaut Edgar Mitchell told me, the difference in the experience for different astronauts was how open they were to it.

CD What if a space tourist has a psychic break up there, as a result of that experience? Previously, astronauts have trained for years before going into space, so they’ve been psychologically prepared for it – but for space tourists, who’ve only had a few days of preparation, how do we know it will only have a positive effect?

FW Virgin Galactic and Space for Humanity are giving a lot of thought to the question of how to maximise the overview effect experience they are planning to provide. Their thinking is focused more on how to ensure that the experience is positive, and this requires us to explore, openly and honestly, potential negative outcomes as well. I have found that when issues are discussed openly it can take some of the charge out of it and help to avoid problems.

Also, Space for Humanity is going to be screening participants to select those who will benefit the most from the experience and do the most with it. I would hope that many carriers would do the same.

CD Most of the first astronauts who went to space were there in a quasi-military capacity – for example, the Mercury astronauts had been selected from a pool of US military test pilots. Is there any proof that their experience up in space altered their views on Earth? For example, did any of them leave the military, or become pacifists, on their return? What about the Russian and Chinese astronauts who also traditionally are selected from the military ranks? Do you think future combatant astronauts – who go to space on war-making missions – will be specifically trained to be immune to the overview effect?

FW I don’t have any specific information to help me answer this question. It seems to me that the military trains its people to achieve their mission under a wide variety of circumstances. Going into space will be no different, in that they will train combatants to be immune to the overview effect if there is a chance it will contradict the mission.

CD Have you done any research on the overview effect being experienced differently by astronauts depending on their own cultural backgrounds or worldviews? For example, did the Russian cosmonauts have similarly spiritual experiences up there? How do astronauts of different cultures make sense of that feeling of transcendence?

FW I have written about cultural variations in my book, and it is more striking how similar the responses are to the experience, than the differences. There is a study from the University of British Columbia that looked closely at this question and concluded that the similarities generally outweighed the differences. I can send it to you if you are interested.

CD Do you think it is important for us to establish a framework for returning astronauts – whether they are space tourists or commercial prospectors – to channel the overview effect into actual action on Earth on important issues? A lot of astronauts became artists later in their lives – which is really great on the one hand – but there’s also this sense to me that they didn’t really know what to do with that profound experience they’d had, how to make sense of it, how to transform it into real-life action. Do you agree?

FW I do think that it is important to create that kind of framework and the organisations I cited earlier, like Space for Humanity, are doing exactly that, i.e., preparing their spaceflight participants for life after going into space. If we can develop these frameworks, it will be good not only for the individual but also for society, as these new space travellers bring “overview thinking” into everything they do.

Also, we need to be open to variations in how people lead their lives after they return. It seems to me that all astronauts have had a shift in worldview because they see the world from a different perspective that is unique in human history. This creates a change in awareness, but it does not necessarily lead to a dramatic change in overt behaviour. There are some specific examples of astronauts who have returned and done something very different after their flights.

So, astronauts are already doing a lot. I can see, however, that everyone would benefit from support for processing the experience and sharing it with others when they return.

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