Author: Frank White

The Need for a Planetary Engineering Ethic

We stand at an inflection point that is unique in human—indeed, in terrestrial—history. Humanity is on the verge of leaving the planet that has been our home for millions of years. Let’s not forget that it is not only humans who will soon be making this historic departure: it’s life itself, which has been confined to the Earth even longer than we have. So, it is not only us who will become a multiplanet species. As we spread out into the solar system and beyond, other species will surely accompany us as we leave a “multispecies planet” and start...

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The Cosma Hypothesis and Human Purpose

We may be small on the grand scale of the universe, but from the standpoint of significance, I think in terms of “Here’s this planet that is placed at a specific distance from the sun that allows us to live as we do and created this environment that is a perfect place for us to survive. And it says to me that there is a reason why we are here, not that there is an insignificance to it.” —Shuttle and ISS Astronaut Nicole Stott, The Overview Effect: Space Exploration and Human Evolution This statement by former astronaut Nicole Stott...

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Deep Space: The Philosophy of the Overview Effect

When the shuttle Challenger exploded in 1986, the nation entered a period of intense soul-searching. We had become accustomed to these spacecraft routinely lifting off from Cape Canaveral and going into orbit for a week or more, then safely returning to Earth. The process seemed so routine that Christa McAuliffe, a schoolteacher, was on board, as the first “teacher in space.” This mission was intended to herald a new era of ordinary citizens going into orbit and beyond. The accident killed all the astronauts and also destroyed “the old space program” that had been born in the 1960s and...

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Cosmism and Cosmocentrism

As I have been exploring the notion of cosmocentrism, I have been drawn to a group of space philosophers I discovered while writing The Overview Effect. These Russian thinkers in the 19th century developed the idea of cosmism, an idea that included not only the exploration of outer space but also the perfection of humanity. I wrote about the Russian Cosmists in The Overview Effect, but primarily to demonstrate the philosophical roots of the Soviet space program, as compared with the American. Nikolai Fyodorov, chief librarian in Moscow, espoused ideas so similar to my own that I no longer consider my concepts to be at all radical. Here is a passage I quoted in the book: The nineteenth-century  Russian philosopher of space,  Nikolai  Fyodorov, developed  the  idea  of the com­mon task, basing it on a series of striking concepts: “The root idea … is that human beings do not have their natural horne on Earth;  rather they are organisms whose ecosystem is more properly the whole cosmos… In Fyodorov’s view, everything is alive, from the gigantic suns of distant galaxies to the smallest pebble under our feet here on Earth. Everything is organic: the biggest difference between the life of rocks and the life of human beings is that they live at differ­ent  velocities in time and at different degrees of consciousness in space. Because  people  have consciousness in the highest  degree,  it is their  task to...

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All of Us Will Be Cosmocentrists

For much of recorded history, everyone simply agreed that the sun and the rest of the universe revolved around the Earth. It wasn’t a matter of debate and you didn’t need to be an astronomer to see that the Earth was a stable platform and the sun, planets, and stars rose and set in the sky in predictable patterns. There was this little problem with the planets, though. Their motion wasn’t that smooth, really. As astronomers observed and recorded their movements through the sky, it became clear that they did some strange things like backing up! They called it retrograde motion and made up all kinds of explanations for it that preserved the geocentric universe to which they were conceptually wedded. Eventually, though, Copernicus and Kepler made it clear that a heliocentric solar system, with the Sun at the center, would simplify the model and eliminate the anomalies. I believe the same kind of shift will eventually occur with humans in this century. While we are accustomed to seeing the universe from a very narrow perspective located on Earth, it will become clear that the cosmic perspective is the broadest and most effective way to consider the human place in the universe. Space exploration, from the work that is accomplished by Earth-based astronomers to the robot probes crawling across the surface of Mars to human spaceflight and off-planet settlements...

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