Sunday, December 20, 2009

Climate Change, Global Warming, and the Overview Effect

If ever there was a situation that needed "overview thinking," it's the current debate over climate change and global warming. The recent meeting in Copenhagen was a positive step in that many of the world's leaders came together to talk about one aspect of "planetary management." It was a step backward, however, in the way the process unfolded and was reported.

As I watched and listened, I couldn't help but wonder how the various heads of state would be approaching the topic if they were meeting in orbit, rather than in Denmark. I imagined that they might be gathering at a future version of the Overview Institute, where the setting would encourage them to think about the whole (Earth) rather than the parts (their own nations).

I hoped that they would be more inclined to think broadly about all aspects of planetary mangement, dealing with climate change as a subset of that larger endeavor. I also hoped that they would be more inclined to develop solutions that would be equitable for all the people and other living creatures on the Earth.

In the end, would the results have been different? I don't know, but I believe that this is the direction we must take as we begin to realize that the Overview Effect points us quite clearly to a new way of thinking about humanity's future.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Another Big Decision

President Obama was criticized for taking so long to make a decision about Afghanistan. However, there is another decision on his "to do" list that is much more important, and that is the future of American space policy. As I understand it, the president wants to adopt most of what the Augustine Commission has proposed, which includes much more reliance on commercial space development and international partnerships. In my opinion, that's the right direction to take. However, Congress is apparently fighting him on this, because it would mean stopping development on Ares and Constellation, a resulting loss of jobs.

When we look back at the 1960's, there is no question that the war in Vietnam holds a major place in our history, as it should. However, space exploration, especially the Apollo moon program, looms much larger in terms of its impact on human history. It was during this time that we not only put the first human being in space but it was also the first time we experienced the Overview Effect. If President Kennedy had not committed us to exploration of the universe, even though he had to contend with war on Earth, we would find ourselves in a much different situation today. Similarly, while President Obama must cope with Afghanistan, his decision about our future in space will be far more critical do our descendants in 2050.

Monday, December 7, 2009

The Overview Effect for Everyone

Sir Richard Branson of Virgin Galactic is scheduled today to unveil the spacecraft that will carry thousands of people into orbit, starting in a few years.

While this may seem like "a very small step for humankind," it is really huge. So far, only about 500 people have left the planet and directly experienced the Overview Effect. Soon,  that number will expand dramatically. What took 40 years to achieve will be accomplished in a year or so. As people bring their new consciousness back to the Earth, a quantitative change will become qualitative.

What will the change look like? We can't say for sure, but the Overview Institute is dedicated to finding out and sharing our insights with the world.

Look for more on this blog in the future.

Friday, November 27, 2009

Water on the Moon: What Next?

NASA recently ran an experiment in which they crashed a spacecraft into a lunar crater to see if they might detect water there. As it turned out, they did, which should be a paradigm-shifting view of the moon and of our debates about space exploration.

The fact that there is water on the moon changes our view of our own satellite from that of a desolate planetary body to a place with a lot of potential for us as a spacefaring species. Moreover, water is the essence of life as we know it. I haven't really heard any speculation about whether there is some form of life on the moon, but water certainly enhances the chances for us to live there.

There should be even more to it than that, however. In the Overview Effect and other writings, I have proposed that we move beyond seeing the Earth as a living system (The Gaia Hypothesis) and see the universe in the same way. I have, in homage to James Lovelock, called this idea "The Cosma Hypothesis." (cf, The Overview Effect, p. 93 and Living in Space, pp. 8-9) It really isn't all that new, and other authors, such as C.S. Lewis, have argued that space is not a dead vacuum, but rather a place teeming with life and beauty. Much of our recent exploration of the solar system, including Mars, confirms this perspective. More recently, Duane Elgin and Deepak Chopra have published a book on this topic called The Living Universe.

This matters because so many people, in my experience, oppose human evolution into the universe precisely because they see a stark contrast between Earth and space, with the former being friendly to humans and the latter being unfriendly. Of course, we cannot survive in a vacuum, and we would still need technological support to live on the moon or Mars, but let's begin to look beyond our neighborhood and see if we can't think of the universe, as well as the Earth, as our home.

Frank White

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

The Human Space Program

In The Overview Effect, I proposed a "Human Space Program" that would be global in scope, and would transcend all national programs. It would last for a millennium, and would be a "central project" designed to unify humanity in a common purpose, i.e., exploration of the universe.

There are signs that this kind of thinking is now seeping into the global consciousness, and I want to report on it in some detail in future posts. I have read several references to NASA/ESA cooperation, and to a proposal by a thought leader in India for a new, global vision of space exploration. The Augustine Commission is also clearly pointing in this direction.

For now, suffice it to say that it is very exciting to see this taking place. I hope we can nurture this new thinking and make it a reality.


Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Big Space, Little Space

Portions of the Augustine Commission's report to President Obama have now been made available, and it appears to me that they have gotten some of it right. First, they have recognized that President Bush's vision for space exploration may not be viable because of the costs involved. If this insight is recognized and handled honestly by the president and congress, it will be a major breakthrough. For too long, NASA has been pursuing plans that could not be supported by their budget. The agency should either be fully funded, or the plans should be scaled back.

The Commission also emphasizes the global nature of space exploration and the value of NASA partnering with private enterprise to realize some of our more ambitious goals as a nation. Again, this is a paradigm shift away from a NASA-centric view of space exploration that is long overdue.

I don't know the final shape of American space policy, but our thinking does seem to be coming into alignment with reality, which is a good thing. Still, whatever NASA does will be a variation on the theme of "Big Space," i.e., lots of government money being spent on relatively large space exploration efforts. By contrast, I was struck recently by reports of a different approach, a kind of "little space program" if you will. Two MIT students have apparently sent a weather balloon high into the atmosphere and have taken pictures of the Earth from space! Their total cost was $150, and I could only think, "Wow, that is the least expensive experience of the Overview Effect so far!"

These students proved to me that any barriers that might be preventing the opening up of the space frontier are not financial in nature---they are simply failures of the imagination!

Frank White

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

The Augustine Commission

The Augustine Commission is about to make its report to President Obama on options for NASA in the future. The Commission has done all of us a service by pointing out that NASA cannot achieve President Bush's vision for space exploration with the funds that will be available in the near term.

This means we need a new vision, and the problem is this : a vision needs to be exciting to be meaningful, and all the options currently facing NASA are rather limited, if seen on their own. We will only become enthusiastic about space exploration again if we see it in a global context, as part of a Human Space Program.

I will have more to say about this issue in future posts.


Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Living in Space

If you ask most "space enthusiasts" whether they would like to live in space, they will say, "Yes!" If you tell them that they are already living in space, it may take a while for them to understand what you mean.

Language is important. How we say things influences how we think about them. Ever since I wrote The Overview Effect, I have been working on creating the understanding within myself that we are already in space. We are in space, we have always been in space, and we will always be in space because the Earth is in space and can't be anywhere else. (In the book, I tell the story of a young man in a daycare center who helped me to see the importance of this insight.)

The challenge before us is to find ways to be elsewhere in the universe. Right now, we are more or less imprisoned on this planet. It is a beautiful prison, and one that we can enjoy greatly. However, we are not yet free to leave it if we want to do so.

What we are really talking about is finding a way for those of us who want to do so to leave the Earth, and be in space in a different way. Not everyone will go, of course. Sometimes, when there is a prison break, some of the prisoners stay inside. Sometimes, when the restless members of a society go exploring, others stay at home.

In the meantime, though, how would it change our lives to just relax a bit and realize that we are in space. Another methphor, coined by Buckminster Fuller, is that we are on Spaceship Earth, traveling through the universe at a high rate of speed.

As I pointed out in The Overview Effect, everyone on the spaceship is either a passenger or a crew member ("Terranaut"). Wouldn't you rather be a Terranaut?

Frank White

Sunday, August 2, 2009

What Apollo Was About

I was watching the Apollo 11 celebration in Washington on NASA TV last night, and I saw something significant as I looked at the logo for the 40th anniversary of the landing. Now, remember that the Apollo effort was supposedly all about going to the moon. However, as shuttle astronaut Joe Allen said in the interview that he granted for my book, The Overview Effect, "With all the arguments, pro and con, for going to the moon, no one suggested that we should do it to look at the Earth. But that may in fact be the most important reason."

It seems that whoever designed the logo for the Apollo 11 celebration knew that Allen was right, because the scene is not a view of the moon. It is, rather, a view of the Earth as seen from the moon. The perspective is from the lunar surface, with the numbers 4 and 0 in the foreground, and the Earth rising on the horizon within the 0. Think about all the choices that NASA had in designing that logo, all the people who had to participate in approving it, and in the end, think about the fact that they chose to make the view of the Earth, the Overview Effect, the centerpiece.

Now, imagine all the arguments pro and con, for going to Mars. Could it be that we will eventually realize that the real reason was to see the Earth from the surface of the red planet? And what will the logo look like for the 40th anniversary of that landing?

Frank White

Monday, July 27, 2009


I've become a fan of NASA TV. Okay, I know it is sometimes like watching paint dry when they have those shots of mission control and no sound whatsoever. I'm thinking, "How can they make space exploration so boring?"

But then, suddenly, they switch to live shots from the International Space Station or the shuttle, and there it is, the Earth rolling past. It is what I am talking about all the time, the Overview Effect! It's what the astronauts see!

The views aren't perfect, because there is often a lot of hardware in the way, but can still be impressive. The other day, they offered commentary, which was even better. The NASA person told us we were over the Pacific Ocean, then over Saskatchewan, and so on.

Now I have an idea, and if anyone reads this, please let me know how to do it. I would like to create a screensaver that is made up of edited NASA TV videos of the Earth from orbit. Ultimately, I'd rather have live video, but this will do for now. The Overview Institute could distribute these screensavers for free, and spread the word (and the images) of the Overview Effect.

I like the concept, now I just have to figure out how to do it.

Suggestions welcomed.

Monday, July 20, 2009

Moon or Mars? Why Not Both?

As I have listened to Apollo 11 commentary today, it has seemed to me that the media has decided that the best way to entertain viewers is to have a debate called "Moon vs. Mars." I am happy to see so much discussion of space exploration in the media, of course. Unfortunately, however, this debate is far too narrow, and it is not the one we should be having 40 years after Apollo 11.

Rather than discussing whether NASA, an American government agency, ought to choose one or the other planetary bodies for its next major mission, we should be discussing what our planet as a whole ought to be doing to open up the solar system as our next frontier. As I discussed in The Overview Effect, such a "Human Space Program" would unite our planet and give us an exciting new adventure, focusing our energies outward into the universe. It would be the next logical consciousness-expanding step that our species ought to take.

I have called this next step in consciousness the "Copernican Perspective." Just as the Overview Effect is the realization that we are all part of one planet, the Copernican Perspective is the realization that we are all part of one solar system. Just as we needed the Effect, we now need the Perspective.

This is why I say, "The Moon or Mars: Why Not Both?

Frank White

Sunday, July 19, 2009

Isn't It Interesting?

Yes, isn't it interesting that, at the moment when the Obama Administration is expanding the government's reach in a host of areas, such as financial services, the automobile industry, and the healthcare industry, it is contemplating a diminished role in piloted spaceflight. As I understand it, that is what the Augustine Commission has been set up to consider.

As for me, I am for a healthy and balanced public/private partnership in all aspects of our lives, and "balance" is the key word. Without the government, we would most likely not be celebrating the Apollo 11 moon landing, we would not have the Overview Effect, nor would we be using the Internet to talk about all of this on a worldwide basis. So I would like to see a rational plan for a global opening of the space frontier, with all interested nations participating (I call this the "Human Space Program.) Under this plan, there would be a role for government and a role for private enterprise. Each one would do what they do best.

Of course, there might be some unintended consequences of the American government receding from the space field. That might encourage people in the private sector to step up and make things happen. However, I don't think that is what is driving this current initiative. So I would be interested in hearing from anyone who is following the Augustine Commission and might be able to enlighten me as to where they are headed.

Frank White

Saturday, July 18, 2009

A Major Milestone

Not only are we celebrating the 40th anniversary of the Apollo 11 flight but we also have just passed a major milestone on the current shuttle flight: the 500th human being has now flown into space.

Now, 500 people in nearly 50 years is not a great record: it's about 10 a year, on average. But consider how much impact space exploration in general and the view of the Earth from space and in space in particular have had on our understanding of ourselves and our place in the cosmos. Consider the impact of the technological "Overview Effect" in the form of satellites, which are knitting our world together in a near-seamless whole.

If the promise of commercial spaceflight proves itself to be real, and we begin to see hundreds and then thousands of people experiencing the Overview Effect directly, that will be a quantitative change that will eventually lead to a qualitative change, a revolution in consciousness, essentially.

Our colleague, Barbara Marx Hubbard, is beginning to focus her energies on the concept of a universal birthing process in which humanity begins to be a universal species. I think we're on the verge of seeing that happen.

What do you think?

Frank White

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Apollo 11 Revisited

Last night, I watched some of NASA's coverage of the Apollo 11 mission, and of the missions that led up to it. I again felt some of the awe that I experienced in 1969, realizing what an amazing achievement it was to navigate to the moon and back with 1960s technology and knowledge. I was also struck by something that Tom Putnam, director of the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum said in announcing that the library would be commemorating the moon landing by reproducing the Apollo 11 journey online at, starting at 8:02 am on Thursday, July 16. Putnam said, "Putting a man on the moon really did unite the globe. We hope to use the Internet to do the same thing."

As I watched the NASA coverage of Apollo 11, I realized that Putnam was right. People all over the planet were gathered around television sets watching the Apollo touchdown, and talking about it in just about every human language. And they were all privileged to see the most extraordinary event of Earthrise, as our planet hovered over the moon, half of it lit by the sun, half in darkness.

It occurred to me that, while President Kennedy receives plenty of credit for the space program in general and Apollo in particular, he may not be acknowledged enough for his contribution to giving us an experience of the Overview Effect, the sense of unity and oneness that seeing the Earth from space offers to our entire world. Reading some of his other speeches, I think he did have the sense that we are all crew members of Spaceship Earth, and that we need to work together to navigate through this vast and unknown universe. I hope his legacy clearly includes this contribution to humanity.

Frank White

Sunday, July 12, 2009

Seeing the Earth from the Moon: The Impact of the Overview Effect

Most space exploration advocates are disappointed that the United States did not pursue a more assertive space policy after Apollo 11. I can understand that, and I have some of the same feelings. In 1969, many of us could reasonably imagine that we might eventually have the option of living off the Earth, if we chose to do so. Forty years later, that original dream has become a distant memory, though most of us haven't given up on it, even now.

However, I have come to believe that there may have been a subconscious reason for stopping at the moon: the impact of seeing the Earth from that perspective and experiencing a new, more powerful version of the Overview Effect. In my mind, the Apollo 8 mission, which took place in December 2008, represented the first moment when many of the inhabitants of the Earth saw the planet as a shining jewel suspended against a backdrop of stars, with the dark universe beyond. The Apollo 11 mission reinforced the experience, as we watched Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin, live on TV, working on the lunar surface with the Earth hanging in the sky above them. One poet wrote about it at the time, asking the question of the Earth, "What are you doing in the sky?" It was a change in viewpoint that is difficult to grasp even now.

Is it possible,then, that humanity, as a species, realized that we were not ready, in the early 1970s, to leave our planet of origin and venture out into the solar system? Did we somehow understand that, for our future solar civilization to be successful, our emerging terrestrial civilization needed to be more stable and mature? Did we determine, without saying it, that we needed to understand the message of the Overview Effect more fully?

In the words of shuttle astronaut Joe Allen, "With all the arguments, pro and con, for going to the moon, no one suggested that we should do it to look at the Earth. But that may in fact have been the most important reason." (The Overview Effect, AIAA, 1998, p.215)

I am not one of those who believes that we should perfect our terrestrial civilization before moving out into the solar system. If we do that, we will never leave the planet. However, I do think that a stable global civilization with a clear vision of its evolutionary future offers the firmest possible foundation for future exploration. Regardless of the conscious or subconscious reasons that we stopped at the moon after Apollo, we have now had 40 years to become more environmentally conscious, to reduce the threat of nuclear war, and to understand the larger meaning of human evolution into the universe.

As we approach the 40th anniversary of the Apollo 11 landing, perhaps we should celebrate it not only by looking back but also by looking forward. Perhaps we should engage in a much deeper dialogue about what that moment on July 20, 1969 meant and why the past four decades have unfolded as they have. Perhaps the story we have told ourselves these many years is missing some important elements.

I will continue this line of thought in my next post.

Frank White

Saturday, July 11, 2009

Why We Stopped at the Moon

Apollo 11 represented an incredible triumph of human ingenuity. Less than a decade after President Kennedy announced that we would send a man to the moon and return him safely to Earth, we had done exactly that.

Several Apollo missions followed, the last one taking place in 1972. President Nixon asked Vice President Agnew to head up a commission that would decide how the United States would build on the success of Apollo. Agnew's group recommended an aggressive move out into the solar system, including human landings on Mars. It made sense at the time, and seemed a natural next step, but the war in Vietnam, money problems, and the fall of both Nixon and Agnew for ethical violations scuttled these ambitious plans. Instead, Congress gave enough money only to begin the shuttle program.

These are the conscious reasons usually given for the retreat from the moon back to Earth orbit. However, I think there are other subconcious reasons why we stopped at the moon, and are only now beginning to plan a return.

I will discuss these reasons in my next post.

Frank White

Friday, July 10, 2009

Apollo 11's 40th Anniversary

On July 20, we will celebrate the fortieth anniversary of the Apollo 11 landing on the moon.

People will write millions of words about this central event of our time, but will anyone ask and answer the big question: how did this event affect our consciousness, how did it change our awareness of our place in the universe? A second question, which is naturally linked with the first, is this: why haven't we gone farther into the universe with human exploration? If we were on the moon from 1969 to 1972, why aren't we on Mars now?

I suspect that a number of people will ask these questions, but I wonder who will have the best answer? Or the most satisfying answer?

I think that, while I may not have the best answer to these questions, I might have some unique perspectives on them, which I will share in the coming days. leading up to the anniversary itself.


Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Direct TV and the Overview Effect

I recently heard that DirectTV is now offering a channel that provides a direct feed from a satellite of views of the Earth from orbit. This means that the channel offers a continuous experience of the Overview Effect.

This is an idea that has been suggested to me since I first wrote my book and began talking about it. It is also an idea that comes close to something Al Gore proposed when he was vice president. I think it's a major step in the process of disseminating the Effect, and I'm going to look into it further.

More later on this development.

Thursday, March 5, 2009

The Overview Effect

The Overview Effect is the experience of seeing the Earth from space and realizing the inherent unity and oneness everything on the planet. I first named it and began attempting to understand it in my book by the same name, published in 1987 by Houghton-Mifflin.

At that time, I interviewed 16 people who had been in outer space to determine if the Overview Effect actually existed and could be documented. While everyone described their experience differently, there was a common theme of realizing that there really were no borders or boundaries on the planet, and a new ecological awareness of the need to protect and preserve the Earth. In 1998, the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics published a revised version of the book, this time with 22 astronaut interviews.

While The Overview Effect certainly had an impact, especially in the space exploration community, the ideas in it were not, early on, disseminated to the larger society. However, as I have often said, the Overview Effect is a message to humanity from the universe, and it's important that this message be delivered. Over time, it has begun to happen.

Frank White