By Frank White
Note: On July 19, 2019, Frank White was honored to receive an award from the New York Space Alliance (NYSA) as part of their celebration of the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 Moon landing. The gathering was co-organized by NYSA partner Google Cloud for Startups, in collaboration with NOVUS, NASA, and the Storm Group. Following is a re-creation of the talk Frank White gave as one of the event’s keynote addresses.
Thank you, thank you so much, for that very kind introduction.
I want to thank my wife Donna and my wonderful family for supporting me on this journey. Donna had hoped to be here with you today, but her health prevented her from making the trip. And I want to thank the New York Space Alliance for this great honor, especially at this moment, when we are marking the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 landing on the Moon.
When Donna and I were discussing marriage some 25 years ago, I told her I only wanted one prenuptial agreement. She asked what it was and I said, “If I ever get a chance to go into outer space, you won’t stand in my way.” She said, “Oh, sure honey, no problem.” Back then, she didn’t think I would ever call her on that agreement, but now she is getting a bit nervous!
You know, there is a saying that all of us want to be heroes of their own life story and I am no different, so an honor like this makes me feel that my story is going to turn out all right in the end. However, in all honesty, I am not the real hero of this story.
The true heroes are the astronauts, cosmonauts, and taikonauts who have been risking their lives since Yuri Gagarin’s historic flight in 1961—leaving our planet and giving us that remarkable view of our home that I have dubbed the Overview Effect.
It’s well known how impossibly dangerous the Apollo 11 landing was, with Neil Armstrong manually bringing the lunar module down to the surface when the computer threatened to take them into a large boulder field.
However, we need to realize that every astronaut is in danger all the time, from liftoff to landing, from docking at the ISS to going outside on EVAs to make repairs.
Yes, it is a great risk, but what a reward for that risk! As astronaut Joe Allen said of those incredibly dangerous Apollo missions:
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.
The Overview Effect
My role has been a bit safer; it has been to transmit the message embedded in the Overview Effect to as many people as possible.
The Overview Effect is indeed a message from the universe to humanity about who we are and where we are in the cosmos. It began to be transmitted in 1961 with Yuri Gagarin’s flight, hit a high note in 1969 with Apollo 11’s moon landing and has continued ever since.
I have been helping to transmit it since the early 1980s when I first “discovered” the Overview Effect. I say that with air quotes because it existed before I named it, but I gave it a name and documented it with astronaut interviews.
What, you might say, does this have to do with being a space entrepreneur? Well, everything!
The Role of the Entrepreneur
If you look at all of the benefits of space exploration to humanity, one stands out, and it is this: the most important benefit is that it shifts human consciousness; it changes our identity and our worldview; it creates a new context that is the environment for all the content of what we think and do.
The Overview Effect is most often seen as creating a new relationship of human beings with the Earth, our home planet. It reveals the Earth as a whole system in which everything is interconnected and interrelated—and we are a part of that system.
However, other shifts have been identified as well. There is also the Copernican Perspective, which is the realization that the Earth in turn is a part of a whole system called the solar system.
And there is the Universal Insight, which advances this perception to the universe as a whole. We are really part of the universe, vast though it is, and some of the astronauts felt connected with the cosmos as much as with the Earth.
All of these shifts will become more pronounced as humans move out into the solar system and we become a spacefaring species. In fact, we must bear in mind the possibility that our descendants will actually become a different species, one that I have called “Homo spaciens.”
However, NONE of this will happen without YOU. Government-run space programs have done a great deal to trigger this explosion into a new consciousness on the part of humanity. However, imagine what would have happened with the Internet if the government had not opened it up to private enterprise. It would be a private network for government and academia and would not be the force for innovation and entrepreneurship it is today. Jeff Bezos has made this comparison many times, and I think he is right.
You know, Apollo 11 was called “man’s greatest adventure” back in 1969, but we are about to embark on an even greater adventure today. There is a great book by an author named Jim Carse called Infinite Games and Finite Games, in which he defines the difference between the two.
We have the opportunity to move from a finite game here on the Earth as a single planet to an infinite game out there in the solar system and beyond; and it is going to take a private/public partnership to make it happen.
So, if you believe, as I do, that the most important reason for leaving the Earth is to change our self-awareness, then you really have to be in favor of space entrepreneurs. That is why you have a space philosopher like me supporting Astropreneurs like you. I know that you are hoping to bring new products and services to people, and that you hope to make money by doing so. You may or may not be very philosophical about it. However, I think it is important to bear in mind that these very specific purposes may fit into a larger human purpose.
Regarding that larger purpose, let me share some thoughts from my most recent book, The Cosma Hypothesis. Although it is very satisfying to have focused on shifting human consciousness as the most important element in space exploration and development, it has never been quite enough for me because it is still homocentric, or human-centered. In the quest to create a philosophy of space exploration, I have shifted my attention to a cosmocentric perspective. The question is, “How does human space exploration benefit not only humans but the larger environment of the solar system and the even larger environment of the universe?”
My answer is that because we humans exist and we are part of the universe, or Cosma, the universe is alive, self-aware, and intelligent. It may well be that this is the purpose of human space exploration, and that is the Cosma Hypothesis.
However, it places a great burden of responsibility on humanity and especially on you, the space entrepreneurs. As we begin to play the infinite game, we realize that we don’t know the rules. In fact, we will be writing the rules ourselves.
The Columbus Paradox
As you know, for many years, we honored Columbus, a great explorer who has long been known as the discoverer of the Americas. Every year, for many years, we have celebrated Columbus Day.
But something astounding has been happening in recent years, which is that city after city has begun to celebrate something other than Columbus Day. Instead, they have been celebrating Indigenous Peoples’ Day. This past year, we reached a milestone when Columbus, Ohio, named after the man himself, joined the movement and celebrated Indigenous peoples rather than Columbus.
Why did this happen? Did Columbus recently do something terrible, something awful that caused him to lose his day? No, he’s been dead for centuries, so it couldn’t have been something he did in the past few years. It was a change in our awareness of him, a realization that in addition to his exploits as an explorer, he was also a great exploiter and brought great suffering to the land and peoples he supposedly discovered.
Today, we look to people like Sir Richard Branson, Elon Musk, and Jeff Bezos as entrepreneurs who are paving the way for other entrepreneurs, like you, to help open the solar system for humanity. They are our heroes. But will they be seen as villains 500 years from now?
What can we do to ensure that our descendants look back on this era and say that Sidney Nakahodo, Frank White, and all of you did it right?
I have been thinking about this question for quite a while and I believe we need a new philosophy of human activity in space, one that balances exploration and exploitation. It is not possible for humans to become a spacefaring species without some degree of exploitation and it will be you, the entrepreneurs, who will be most concerned with that aspect of the enterprise. It will be up to you to ensure that what we do out there is not only good for us but also good for the solar system and ultimately the universe.
Each of you will need to decide for yourself how you will do that—or ignore it.
My own contribution is to found The Human Space Program, a project to create a comprehensive, sustainable, and inclusive blueprint for exploring and developing the solar system.
We will tackle the most urgent and important issues facing humanity as we migrate out into the solar system. We are talking about creating guiding principles—like Star Trek’s Prime Directive—that might become standard operating procedure for all of us as we become the new astronauts of our time.
Each of us has a role to play in this grand adventure that we call space exploration and development. Each of us has an opportunity to be the hero not only of our own story but also the story of humanity becoming a spacefaring species and of the universe becoming more alive, self-aware, and intelligent. Welcome to the Infinite Game!
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