What is the fundamental purpose of space exploration? Frank White attempts to answer that question in "The Overview Effect" consisted of developing a philosophy of space and describing what future human civilizations in space might be like.
This was a very ambitious undertaking. White succeeds in asking some important questions about our future in space. He gives the reader many things to think about. But, if he had avoided the use of philosophical and political clichs, as well as a number of psychological buzzwords, he would have been able to make a stronger argument for his points.
White interviewed a number of astronauts about their experiences in space for this book. From these eyewitness accounts, and from the written testimony of astronauts and cosmonauts, White has compiled evidence of a powerful aesthetic, psychological, and even religious experience he calls the Overview Effect.
The Overview Effect is a real phenomenon with very real consequences. Our surroundings and our specific locations here on Earth affect our knowledge and our feelings. Ask the architect who is trained not only to create outward beauty in buildings, but must also consider how the interiors affect the people who live and work in them. The interior, wrap-around world of a space colony will certainly affect space settlers in a very different way. So too will the "architecture" of space. Stars and moons and planet shimmering overhead and below feet will be even more overpowering for space travelers. As White points out, it has already been so for numerous astronauts and cosmonauts for decades.
White reminded me of my own experience with the Overview Effect. This occurred while I was watching the Apollo 11 mission in 1969. I didn't react as strongly to the sight of the Earth from the Moon as I did to the astronauts as they hopped around in one-sixth gravity. While I sat in my family's home in Minnesota, I realized that human beings were on the surface of a different world. A truly transformative experience for humanity.
Before that day, the Moon had merely been a bright object in the sky that changed shape during the month. But then, on that July day long ago, the Moon had become a real place, a place people could visit. And in the future, perhaps a place that people would call home. I knew this intellectually, of course, well before the Apollo mission. But it's rather different seeing the full Moon in full daylight over your lawn on a sunny summer afternoon, and then seeing astronauts on TV stepping out onto a flimsy ladder and touching foot on that very same object later that very evening.
Up to this point, White succeeds in making clear to the reader how the astronauts and cosmonauts responded to spaceflight and communicated their experiences to the rest of us. But, he fails to make a strong case for his philosophy of space based on these experiences.
He reminds us again and again how amazed the astronauts were when they saw no boundary lines on the surface as they viewed Earth from orbit. Surely, every one of those men realized that Earth would not look like a Rand McNally school globe from space. Obviously, the excitement of the moment overwhelmed their critical facilities.
It isn't necessary to orbit Earth to make this discovery. All a Minnesotan has to do is drive south from the Twin Cities to Iowa on I-35. Look ma, no boundaries!
Yet, White accepts the astronauts' reactions wholly and uncritically, and uses them to project future human civilizations by showing humans somehow rising above provincial nationalism. An Earth without boundaries is presumed to be without political division - a very debatable proposition.
White asserts that a civilization he calls Terra must be developed on this planet before humans can build space civilizations. Unfortunately, this would take a very long time considering the political and technological differences that exist in the world today.
According to White, when Terra is complete, our descendants will build Solaria, a Solar System civilization. And their descendants and extraterrestrials will one day build Galaxia throughout the Milky Way. Actually, it's more likely that humans will be living all over the Solar System before humans on Earth would consider themselves citizens of a one-world society. We would probably achieve world government long after we no longer needed it.
The interior development of these civilizations and the development of an Overview attitude toward the universe as a whole comprise the true purpose of human existence. This is White's philosophy of space.
It is important to keep these things in perspective. Terra, Solaria, and Galaxia are merely human abstractions of projected future human (and alien) communities. As such, they can't give us a solid foundation for a philosophy of space. We would merely be projecting a wish onto the universe based on other wishes.
Nor is clear thinking aided in such a difficult subject by White's use of language, which edges dangerously close to what might be called "California Trendy." "Rising state of consciousness." "Expanding consciousness." "Changing your consciousness." Enough. I can smell the incense already.
A firmer basis for a philosophy of space must await the hard work of historians, sociologists, psychologists, political scientists, and - yes - philosophers. They, along with the physical scientists and engineers already working on the space program, will build this philosophy of space out of the raw materials of what we know and out of what space settlers learn. Human experience, human needs, human desires, human vocation, and human drives will fill a philosophy of space with real content. And, unfortunately for White's dreams for Galaxia, until we meet actual aliens, we are strictly limited to our own very human, very parochial viewpoint - Overview or not.
Frank White has made a brave first effort in discussing issues that are sure to grow in importance as our presence in space grows. This book provides much food for thought and much material for agreement and dissension. Such things are needed in order for philosophical creativity to grow. The 24 transcribed interviews and excerpts of reports made by the astronauts and cosmonauts were well chosen and give the reader a feel for what spaceflight is really like. They alone make this book an invaluable addition for the space advocate's personal library.
Read "The Overview Effect." It will deepen your own worldview and challenge you to add to and improve on what has been presented.
Frank White was a senior associate of the Space Studies Institute in Princeton, New Jersey. He testified before the National Commission on Space and assisted in writing its report, "Pioneering Space."
"The Overview Effect," by Frank White. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1987.