Wednesday, January 25, 2017

The Passing of Gene Cernan

I was saddened to hear about the passing of Gene Cernan, Apollo 17 commander and last person to walk on the moon.

Gene was very helpful to me when I was writing The Overview Effect. In particular, he, along with Edgar Mitchell, pointed out the differences in the astronaut experience between being in Low Earth Orbit and going to the moon. In Cernan's words:

"Being a quarter million miles out in space has to give you a different perspective. Anyone who denies it has missed something. Being in Earth orbit vs going out beyond must be separated. Philosophically, we really have had two different space  programs." (1)

He goes on to talk about how the astronaut is moving rapidly around the Earth when in orbit, while he is moving away while on the way to the moon or on the way back from the moon. Then, of course, there is the experience of being on the surface of the moon and seeing our home planet in the sky.

Of that, Cernan said:

"When I was on the moon somewhere out there in the universe, I had to stop and also ask myself, 'Do you really know where you are in space  and time and history?'" (2)

If you are interested in the distinction between the astronaut experience in LEO and on a lunar mission, I strongly recommend reading the interview with Gene Cernan in The Overview Effect.

You might also enjoy Cernan's book about his experiences, The Last Man on the Moon.

It is highly readable, and provides great insight not only into the Overview Effect aspects of the Apollo program but also what it was like to be an astronaut during the heady time of the late 60's and early 70's.

I find myself feeling increasing sadness as we lose more and more of the Apollo astronauts. There were not many of them to begin with, and each year seems to bring another passing. It is difficult to think of this elite group of people as mortal, but in a way that is the whole point of space exploration and the astronauts who carry it out: they are mortal and fallible, they are, well, human like the rest of us. And yet, as part of one of the greatest "central projects" of our time, they accomplished something that seems superhuman.

As we move out into the solar system, we should always remember that brave people like Eugene A. Cernan showed us the way and through their example, said, "You can do it, too."(1) 

(1) The Overview Effect: Space Exploration and Human Evolution, F. White, AIAA, Reston, VA, 2014, p. 183.

(2) Ibid, p. 184.

(c) Copyright, Frank White, 2017, All Rights Reserved

The Overview Effect: Space Exploration and Human Evolution is available at and 

Friday, January 13, 2017

Competing Visions (4)

I was very involved in the Space Studies Institute (SSI) and my work with the space settlement movement led directly to the discovery of the Overview Effect.

The great benefit of SSI was that they wanted input from everybody, not just scientists and engineers. O'Neill envisioned a space settlement as a community of human beings who would do everything that people on Earth did, including writing poetry and novels, and debating political and economic issues.

After trying unsuccessfully for years to find a way into space exploration with a degree in the social sciences, I found that SSI welcomed me and was interested in my "human systems theory" about space settlement. I delivered my first major paper on space exploration and development at the SSI conference in 1981. It was called "Understanding Space Settlements as Human Systems," and it was well received.

At some point in the late 1970s and early 1980s, I took the plane flight that changed my life. I was pretty much obsessed with space settlements at this point, and as the plane flew west from Boston, I was thinking about what it would be like to always live off the Earth. At the same time, I was staring out the window and noticing how seamless everything appeared to be. There were no borders and boundaries between the states, like the maps to which we have grown so accustomed. Everything appeared to be seamless and whole.

I had other insights that are described in my book, The Overview Effect: Space Exploration and Human Evolution. The key for our purposes here is that I realized the following: "Everyone living in an O'Neill space settlement will always have an overview of the Earth. They will always know that the planet is unified and is a whole system. They will take for granted insights that we have struggled to attain for centuries."

At that moment, I called this experience "the Overview Effect" and set out to determine if it offered a valid hypothesis about the future of space exploration and development.

(To be continued)

(c) Copyright, Frank White, 2017, All Rights Reserved

The Overview Effect: Space Exploration and Human Evolution is available at and