December 2020 – January 2021

Essays

Ceridwen Dovey

Pale blue dot

© NASA / ullstein bild via Getty Images

The myth of the ‘overview effect’, and how it serves space industry entrepreneurs

In the early 1980s, the American writer Frank White, a long-time fan of space exploration, was thinking about what it would be like for future space settlers to see Earth hanging in their sky, day after day, and whether that sight would ever become routine. 

He stumbled upon several astronauts’ descriptions of how they’d felt while in space, looking back at Earth. It wasn’t something that had been much detailed; often what was emphasised was the harrowing, difficult side to their jobs as astronauts, to bolster the reputation of the profession at a time when the Space Age’s primary commodity was national prestige. Astronauts in government space programs were also kept pretty busy by ground control – so busy that the crew on NASA’s Skylab supposedly mutinied at one point – and had little free time for contemplating Earth. 

Yet on the rare moments astronauts had to float and gaze, some of them later described to White experiencing feelings of bliss and transcendence, and a powerful, intuitive understanding of Earth as a single, unified planet rather than a patchwork of national interests and identities. White coined a term for this, “the overview effect”, and published a book with that title, based on interviews with astronauts. 

In the years since, the overview effect has become part of the lingo of anybody interested in space, and also one of the main moral justifications used for why any activity that takes humans into space seems worthy of admiration. 

Certainly, seeing Earth from space once satellites and astronauts began to send back images is credited with initiating a shift in environmental consciousness in the 1960s. But the iconic images of “Spaceship Earth” – Earthrise, the Blue Marble, the Pale Blue Dot – may have set us on the wrong path in how we think of our planet in relation to outer space: as cut off from the rest of the universe, not connected to it, a self-sustaining ark in the middle of a blank wilderness ripe for exploitation. Those images also encourage us to romanticise who we might be in space (and what we might philosophise about while up there) and ignore the fact that space is already a militarised and commercialised zone. 

The overview effect, while on paper a nice idea, is very much bound to a white American male cultural context, since that’s the profile of the majority of astronauts historically (and certainly of the cohort interviewed by Frank White for his first book). In truth, we have no idea what effect it would have on most of the world’s population to see Earth from space, and nobody has paid any attention to the fact that different cultures or religions might have completely different responses, not all of them positive. For some, the overview effect might trigger a crisis of faith, or space psychosis, or despair and hopelessness, or even nihilism in the face of the incomprehensibility of the universe and our place within it.

Yet in recent years, as the financial motive has grown for private space companies to court public support (and venture capitalist investment) for their profit-making plans in space, the overview effect concept has been taken up even more enthusiastically. 

It was re-popularised by Darren Aronofsky’s 2018 National Geographic television series, One Strange Rock, in which astronaut after astronaut describes life-changing, quasi-religious feelings of connection and whole-Earth thinking while gazing at the planet from space. Most importantly, they say, seeing Earth from space made them better people. “We went to the moon as technicians,” astronaut Edgar Mitchell once said. “We returned as humanitarians.” (I hate to be the one to point this out, but some astronauts in fact became depressed alcoholics for a time after their return, Yuri Gagarin and Buzz Aldrin among them, and Mitchell went on to become obsessed with the idea that aliens have been visiting Earth for decades.) 

The overview effect is mentioned glowingly in almost every new article about the growing space industry sector (which calls itself “NewSpace”), space tourism, off-Earth mining, or Moon settlement. Keep your eyes open and you’ll be amazed by how often it crops up. 

For NewSpace companies that stand to prosper from first-mover advantage, it’s useful to encourage the public to believe that anything done in space is good for all of us. The more public support for the principle of space exploitation – for private profit, and with very lax regulation – the quicker these start-ups will amass the power and resources to do whatever they like in space. Let us go there first, their founders say. Trust us – we won’t do anything wrong. And we’re doing it for you – so that one day, anyone can experience the overview effect and be changed forever!

The mainstream media seems reluctant to scrutinise, let alone criticise, these companies. The Economist’s 2016 Technology Quarterly breathlessly lauded the space entrepreneurs Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos and Peter Diamandis as visionaries, “motivated by more than profit”, wanting to “extend humankind’s grasp and its sense of what it is”. 

Similarly, in one of the longest articles I’ve ever seen published in The New Yorker (the full spread runs to 19 pages), the journalist Nicholas Schmidle lionised the pilots working for Richard Branson’s space company, Virgin Galactic. 

Schmidle’s piece, published in 2018, channels the same semi-repressed writer’s envy of the perceived “real” masculinity of the test pilots as that expressed by Tom Wolfe in his 1979 paean to the early American fighter-pilots-turned-astronauts, The Right Stuff. Alongside a full-page colour portrait of Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShip Two test pilot, Mark Stucky, is the following macho brag from Stucky himself: “We’re test pilots of spaceships. As a Marine Corps colonel once told me, ‘If you want to be safe, go be a shoe salesman at Sears.’ ” 

Later, Schmidle quotes NASA astronaut Jack Fischer, who, after a long-running bet with Stucky as to who would get into space first, sent Stucky photos of Earth he’d taken from the International Space Station porthole in 2017: “‘Everyone who is a space explorer takes a big risk because we think it’s worth it,’ Fischer told me. ‘You want to try and honor that brotherhood any way you can.’ ” 

(His phrasing inadvertently reveals the shared world view of these men, both pilot and journalist: neither of them thinks it’s a problem to honour the brotherhood of space explorers.)

Schmidle later lets Branson wax lyrical about the overview effect, with no contextual scepticism about the strategic aims Branson might have in doing so: 

Three months ago, Branson called me from Necker, his private island in the Caribbean, and said, “We see ours being the spaceship for Earth” – a vehicle whose purpose is not escapist but humanistic. He referred to a 1989 book, “The Overview Effect,” by Frank White, which quotes former astronauts reflecting on the profundity of staring at Earth from space … Branson told me, “I believe that, once people have gone to space, they come back with renewed enthusiasm to try and tackle what is happening on this planet.” 

This from the founder of a space company with a business model that depends on the inequality hierarchies of Earth, actively seeking global 1 percenters to put down quarter-of-a-million-dollar deposits for the ultimate privilege of becoming the first tourists in space. 


With space privatisation still a relatively new concept, the smoke and mirrors are hard to see through. 

A recently founded American non-profit organisation, Space for Humanity, seems at first glance to have a genuine humanitarian bent, its goal to “give the gift of perspective” to ordinary world citizens. Frank White is a member of its board of advisors. People from anywhere in the world have been invited to apply to become “citizen astronauts”. If selected, they will be taken on a high-altitude balloon trip to the outer edge of space, to experience the overview effect for themselves. 

The organisation is the brainchild of Dylan Taylor, former global president of the real estate company Colliers International and a “super angel investor” in the NewSpace industry. He’s the chairman and chief executive of a privately owned space exploration company, Voyager Space Holdings, and was a founding partner of Space Angels, a NewSpace investment platform that has backed firms planning to mine the Moon or other celestial bodies for profit, as well as space exploration and tourism companies. One such company is World View Enterprises, which is developing the high-altitude balloon vehicles (called “Voyagers”) that will most likely deliver the suborbital experience to those selected by Space for Humanity (Branson’s Virgin Galactic, as well as Bezos’s commercial space company, Blue Origin, are other potential options for transporting the candidates).

Given that Space for Humanity’s founder has some serious skin in the space industry game, aspiring citizen astronauts may want to read the small print carefully. While the organisation is happy to bankroll your experience of the overview effect, it is not prepared to permit you the freedom to express your epiphany in whatever way you see fit: returning to Earth as a newly charged eco-warrior, for example, campaigning to protect Earth orbits from being further trashed by the tens of thousands of small satellites being launched by private companies such as Musk’s SpaceX; or feeling moved to dedicate your life to efforts to turn the Moon into a protected natural and scientific reserve, free from commercial mining. 

In 2017, when the call for applicants first went out, I discovered the following caveat hidden down the bottom of the Space for Humanity website: that the people selected for the suborbital trip “must also be willing advocates for the growth of the commercial space industry”. No matter what you experience up there, the organisation doesn’t want to hear about it unless you come back down and join them in their celebration of the art of making money in space. 

The dubious claim that gazing back at Earth from space – whether as citizen astronauts or wealthy space tourists – will make us better people is focused on the macro vision. What about the finer details of what can be seen from space? What visual data about activities on Earth is being collected by these NewSpace companies, and what will it be used for? 

The overview effect, it turns out, has a rather dystopian underbelly. New forms of surveillance are rapidly being deployed in space. World View Enterprises – the same company vying for a partnership with Space for Humanity – is already launching stratospheric satellites (dubbed “Stratollites”) into space. 

The Stratollite is a sophisticated surveillance device. It has a camera on it that’s so accurate that once it’s been carried up to the edge of space by a balloon, it can tell whether a person on the ground is holding “a shovel or a gun”, according to Wired magazine. The first official buyers of its visual data are already lined up: the US Department of Defense, and major oil and gas companies. It’s been revealed that Chinese company Tencent (which operates WeChat and is believed to engage in surveillance on behalf of the Chinese government) has invested heavily in the company. So, you might be surprised to learn that one of the world’s most respected astronauts, American Mark Kelly (recently elected to the US Senate), worked for World View Enterprises for a while and still holds stock options: so much for any lasting warm and fuzzy feelings from his experience of the overview effect.

Too much now rides on this assumption that going to space – and seeing Earth from space – will inspire us to lift our standards in terms of how we treat one another and our planet. It has become, according to Guardianscience writer Martin Robbins, the “most pernicious space myth in existence”. 

We need to start thinking critically in response to the commercialisation and industrialisation of space. It’s tricky, because it’s essentially about building a social and environmental justice movement not to redress pastwrongs but to anticipate and prevent future ones. Will space mining pollute the solar system in ways we can’t yet imagine? Will the male-dominated NewSpace industry be the epicentre of the next wave of #MeToo accusations? How can anybody trust that black lives will matter in space when almost all the people who currently hold the power and purse strings over a human future out there are white? 

Australia’s mainstream media has so far not been much help when it comes to critical reporting on the domestic space industry: like the overseas press, many Australian journalists tend to be awestruck by the bells and whistles of rockets blasting off and the possibility of space resource-mining booms. A recent ABC Four Corners report, “The New Space Age”, felt more like propaganda for space industrialisation than a piece of investigative journalism. Its coverage of private companies such as Australian start-up Southern Launch bordered on hagiography. There was no discussion of the fact that the first object launched from Southern Launch’s Koonibba Test Range in South Australia (on land leased from the Koonibba Community Aboriginal Corporation) was, according to Australian Defence Magazine, a “prototype electronic warfare unit capable of detecting radar signals. Future versions of the payload will go into orbiting satellites and keep our soldiers safer from enemy forces abroad.” 

This is particularly interesting in relation to a decision that has reportedly been made by Indigenous landowners in the Northern Territory, where another space start-up, Equatorial Launch Australia, is building the Arnhem Space Centre outside of Nhulunbuy. The Gumatj Corporation has signed a sublease with the company to permit launches from Gumatj land, but according to Dr Cassandra Steer, a space law expert at the ANU College of Law, it was important to the community that there would be no military-related launches. Equatorial Launch Australia cannot be pleased about that, since the military is a key client for space launches. 


Will we export failed ways of thinking to space, or will we find a way, as Tyson Yunkaporta, Melbourne-based academic and author of Sand Talk: How Indigenous Thinking Can Save the World, has urged, to acknowledge that “there is a pattern to the universe and everything in it, and there are knowledge systems and traditions that follow this pattern to maintain balance, to keep the temptations of narcissism in check”? Will we set out yet again with ways of being that, Yunkaporta writes, “break down creation systems like a virus, infecting complex patterns with artificial simplicity, exercising a civilising control over what some see as chaos”?

Recently, at a space conference I attended, the morning speakers – several from the Australian Space Agency or representatives of the local space industry – each offered an Acknowledgement of Country before launching into speeches about how their goal is to triple the size of the nation’s space industry and take Australia’s resource-mining know-how out into space. 

The logo of the ASA – and its promotional video – references Indigenous Australians as the first astronomers. Yet where and how are Indigenous knowledge systems being reflected in this intensely commercial focus of our own national space agency? It seems that we’re stuck in the same zero-sum-game thinking that stops us dealing effectively with the disaster of climate change: jobs at any cost versus sustainability and care for the environments that sustain us. If the ASA wants to draw inspiration from Indigenous knowledge, it should be leading the way in building a vision for sustainable, non-militarised, non-polluting, ethical and egalitarian activities in space for the good of all, based on Yunkaporta’s description of a “web of connections between terrestrial communities and country in the sky”. As he writes:

There are living rocks up there as there are down here, and the dark spaces between the stars are not a vacuum, but solid lands that have mass and sentience, reflecting places and times on earth.

I don’t mean to be a buzzkill by poking holes in the overview effect. It can be fun to get excited about space, to geek out over it, to be overcome with wonder and awe. But that shouldn’t involve being brainwashed by those with the most to gain from commercialising space. 

The American environmentalist Wendell Berry once said that “people exploit what they have merely concluded to be of value, but they defend what they love”. Anyone who says they love space should also want to defend it from being degraded and defined as nothing more than another site of extraction and exploitation. One way for the public to express that love is to demand independent means of monitoring commercial space activities, to record concrete evidence of wrongdoing and environmental impacts. Without that visual information, we will be flying blind, especially since most space start-ups are cut from the same Silicon Valley cloth and operate under extreme secrecy. 

Forget the overview effect – to me, believing in it means willingly allowing yourself to be hoodwinked. Rather, let us fight for robust regulation, oversight and accountability in space, in order to keep a beady eye on what’s being done out there in our collective names.

 

Since publication, this article was amended to specify that Frank White is a member of Space for Humanity’s board of advisers. A transcript of Ceridwen Dovey’s interview with Frank White is available here, and a response to this essay by Frank White and Dylan Taylor is available here.

Ceridwen Dovey

Ceridwen Dovey is the author of Blood Kin, Only the Animals and In the Garden of the Fugitives. Her latest book is Writers on Writers: Ceridwen Dovey on J.M. Coetzee.

Cover of The Monthly Dec 2020 – Jan 2021
View Edition
Buy Print Edition

From the front page

Composite image of NSW Premier Dominic Perrottet and Prime Minister Scott Morrison (images via ABC News)

Border farce

So much for the national plan

Image of a tampon and a sanitary pad viewed from above

A bloody shame: Paid period leave should be law

Australia’s workplace laws must better accommodate the reproductive body

Image of Gladys Berejiklian appearing before an ICAC hearing in October 2020. Image via ABC News

The cult of Gladys Berejiklian

What explains the hero-worship of the former NSW premier?

Cover image of ‘Bodies of Light’

‘Bodies of Light’ by Jennifer Down

The Australian author’s latest novel, dissecting trauma, fails to realise its epic ambitions


In This Issue

Image of whale sculpture

Inner space

Taking to London’s streets in lockdown, with thoughts of Orwell and Henry Miller, plagues, eels, decorative cakes and what might be done in the belly of a whale

Image of Toots Hibbert, 1976

Ready steady gone

The passing of its figureheads underscores pop music’s waning influence on personal identity

Illustration by Jeff Fisher

Which jobs and what growth?

We need to talk about the economy

Image of ‘Jack’

‘Jack’ by Marilynne Robinson

History and suffering matter in the latest instalment of the American author’s Gilead novels


More in The Monthly Essays

Friday prayers at Pul-e Khishti mosque in Kabul soon after the Taliban took control on August 15, 2021

War of error

US failures in Afghanistan and the folly of Australia’s unquestioning support

Image of theatre stage with empty chairs

Drama in hell

The descent of creative arts at Australia’s universities

A spiral galaxy in the Coma Berenices constellation. Photographed at Lick Observatory, California, in the late 1800s.

The search for extraterrestrial minds

That we understand the nature of the cosmos has profound implications in the search for life

Image of dog with face masks

The pandemic and the shrinking of Australian politics

Rather than prompting reform, the COVID emergency has hardened the major parties’ neoliberal ideology


Read on

Image of a tampon and a sanitary pad viewed from above

A bloody shame: Paid period leave should be law

Australia’s workplace laws must better accommodate the reproductive body

Image of Gladys Berejiklian appearing before an ICAC hearing in October 2020. Image via ABC News

The cult of Gladys Berejiklian

What explains the hero-worship of the former NSW premier?

Cover image of ‘Bodies of Light’

‘Bodies of Light’ by Jennifer Down

The Australian author’s latest novel, dissecting trauma, fails to realise its epic ambitions

Image showing from left: The Tiger Who Came To Tea, Gladys Berejiklian and Thomas the Tank Engine

The little premier that might have

Does unquestioning, childish enthusiasm have a place in politics?