Space Center Houston Talk: The Astronaut’s Secret

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By Frank White

Note: On June 12, 2019, Frank White was honored to give a talk at Space Center Houston, the visitor’s gateway to NASA’s Johnson Space Center (JSC). He wants to thank NASA and the Space Center for this opportunity.

The Overview Effect is a message from the universe to humanity: it was communicated first to the astronauts when they left planet Earth and viewed the planet from a distance. They saw something that no one in human history had ever seen before. I was then fortunate enough to write about that message in my book, The Overview Effect. The message is that we are one species on one planet with a single destiny and we need to start behaving with that kind of awareness.

Today, people all over the world are trying to figure out how to “bring the Overview Effect down to Earth.” Why? Because they believe the Astronaut’s Secret will transform the thinking of surface dwellers and make the world a better place.
Let me step back a minute and tell you a little bit about my search for the Astronaut’s Secret and as I tell this story, please think about your own life and your own mission here on planet Earth.

Today, I am going to share the Astronaut’s Secret with you, and once you know it, you will have an obligation to decide how you will deal with it, because it will change how you see the world forever. The truth is that this is one of those secrets that is hiding in plain sight. The astronauts have done their best to share it with the world, but the world is only now getting ready to hear it.

This story contains the first clue to what the Astronaut’s Secret is.

When my son was very young, maybe four years old, around 1981, I used to take him to daycare each morning and I found out that Howie, the daycare director, was somewhat interested in space exploration.

I was desperate for an audience in those days to listen to my ideas, so I would bend Howie’s ear with visions of daycare centers in space.

“Howie, how are you going to keep up with those little kids when they are floating around in zero gravity? How are you going to manage toddlers who don’t toddler? They’re flying around! Can you imagine changing diaper when there’s no gravity?”
Howie had finally had enough.

“Frank, why don’t you come give a talk to the kids about space? I’ll invite the staff, too. It’ll be fun.”

Oh boy, an audience!

The big day arrived and I spent 5 or 10 minutes telling the children about living on the Moon, on Mars, in a space settlement, and so on. At the end, I said, “So how many of you would like to live in space?”

All hands shot up except one. A little guy named Masaki looked at me and said, “But Mr. White, we are in space.”

Thank you, Mr. Masaki!

If you were watching the film carefully, you heard my colleague, David Beaver, say exactly the same thing.

Yes, we are already in space, we have always been in space, and we will always be in space because we cannot be anywhere else. The Earth is a natural spaceship moving through the universe at a very high rate of speed.

So, if you have dreamed of “going into space,” congratulations, you have made it, we have all made it. We are in space, right now, this very minute.

Perhaps another dream of yours has been to become an astronaut. Well, you have achieved that as well. We humans are the astronauts of Spaceship Earth. We are its crew and it is up to us to see that we achieve its mission.

You see, when our NASA astronauts, and the cosmonauts and taikonauts of other countries climb onto rockets and blast off, they are not really going into space, they are leaving the Earth, which is really quite different. They see that we live on a planet in space, or you might say they see our spaceship.

But we know we live on a planet, don’t we? Yes, every child learns that in school. The challenge is that we experience the world just as our ancestors did 500, 1,000, even 10,000 years ago: we live on a stable platform that does not move and the heavens rotate above us. The difference between us and the NASA astronauts is that they know it in a different way: they have experienced it. When I interviewed Sandy Magnus, who flew on the very last Shuttle flight, for my book, I asked her what she took away from her spaceflight experience, she focused on the difference between intellectual and experiential knowledge.

Specifically, she said:
What you are writing about is really the transformation of the intellectual knowledge that we all have as human beings into an experiential set of knowledge that space exploration can give…

So, we are in space and the astronauts have experienced this fact directly, but most of us have not.

This is why I have said that I believe it should be a fundamental human right to experience the Overview Effect, either by physically leaving the planet or through a high quality simulation using virtual reality or a similar tool.

The second clue to the astronaut’s secret is what they see and what they feel when they are in Earth orbit or on the moon.

One of the first reactions of astronauts to seeing the Earth from orbit or the moon has been how beautiful our home planet is.

Alan Shepard, first American to leave the Earth, said:
No one could be briefed well enough to be completely prepared for the astonishing view that I got. My exclamation about the “beautiful sight” was completely spontaneous. It was breathtaking.

ISS and Shuttle astronaut Nicole Stott said:
It is a dynamic, crystal-clear view that just glows, and that doesn’t come across in the pictures and videos. You feel more a part of it when you are looking at it that way. So it was a reaffirmation of what a beautiful and special place the Earth is.

Apollo 9 astronaut Rusty Schweickart said:
You look down there and you can’t imagine how many borders and boundaries you cross, again and again and again, and you don’t even see them. There you are—hundreds of people in the Mideast killing each other over some imaginary line that you’re not even aware of and that you can’t see.

From where you see it, the thing is a whole, and it’s so beautiful. You wish you could take one in each hand, one from each side in the various conflicts, and say, “Look. Look at it from this perspective. Look at that. What’s important?”

They also see how fragile life on Earth really is.
Many astronauts comment on how very thin the atmosphere seems to be when viewed from orbit. And that is the only thing protecting life on Earth from the harshness of the space environment. Astronaut Nicole Stott has said that the only border that really matters is that thin blue line—the atmosphere—that separates us from the rest of the universe, nurturing life and protecting us from cosmic radiation.
Astronaut Ron Garan called our planet a “fragile oasis.” He told me:
It’s the perspective that each and every one of us is riding through the universe together on this spaceship we call Earth, that we’ll all in this together, that we’re all interconnected, that we’re all family and our Spaceship Earth is all we’ve got, a “fragile oasis,” if you will.

But it isn’t really the Earth that is fragile, it is our human civilization, threatened as it is by so many challenges, such as climate change. In general, astronauts become far more aware of environmental concerns when they return from their time away from home.

Ultimately, they see the interconnection of all life on Earth and they frequently remark, like Ron Garan, that “we’re all in this together” and must learn to collaborate more effectively.

In the words of Shuttle astronaut Don Lind:
You can’t see the boundaries over which we fight wars, and in a very real way, the inhabitants of this Earth are stuck on a very beautiful, lovely little planet in an incredibly hostile space, and everybody is in the same boat.

Finally, our astronauts have learned the value of exploration and the surprises it can bring to us in terms of evolution of our awareness of who we are and where we are in the universe.

Joe Allen, the first astronaut I interviewed for my book, said:
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.

Are you beginning to see what the Astronaut’s Secret is? Are you picking up on this second clue? The astronauts have a cognitive shift in awareness, in identity, in worldview, and they are never quite the same again.

Because they are different people with different backgrounds and belief systems, they may describe the experience in different ways, but there is something that unites all of these responses to this remarkable experience. When I interviewed Apollo astronaut Edgar Mitchell, he asked me what I had learned in interviewing astronauts and I said that I was surprised at the variety of experiences each person had had. He told me:

The variety in the interpretation of the experience is a lot greater than you expected. The experience is the same…The problem is, how do they interpret it and how do they express it?

That comes through the belief system, which is the key to how you see and interpret all these events.

So, we are in space, we have always been in space, and we will always be in space. However, the only way we can fully grasp this reality is the leave the Earth and look back at our home planet.

We need one final clue to fully understand the Astronaut’s Secret, which I am now about to reveal to you.

The clue is this: the astronauts not only see the Earth from a unique vantage point but they also see the universe itself in a way that no other human being has seen it. They see the Earth not only from space but also in space. This realization is at the heart of my book about human purpose in the universe, The Cosma Hypothesis.
This perception of the universe is especially true of lunar missions. As Apollo astronaut Eugene Cernan told me:

When I was on the moon somewhere out there in the universe, I had to stop and ask myself, “Do you really know where you are in space and time and history?”

And Edgar Mitchell said this about going to the moon:

It gets you closer to a more universal experience because of the distance and wider view. You identify more with the universe as it is instead of the Earth as it is.

Perhaps now you know what the Astronaut’s Secret is, having heard the third clue, which points out that the astronauts not only saw the Earth in a new way but they also experienced the universe in a new way.

Not only that, but they also became very comfortable in this supposedly alien environment. As Shuttle astronaut Bonnie Dunbar put it:
Seeing the Earth from that perspective reinforced my concept of a small fragile planet and a species needing to come to terms with itself. With successive flights, I have become more at home in space. I miss it. I miss looking down on the Earth and looking out into the universe.

Well, here it is, the quote from Shuttle astronaut Al Sacco, Jr, that finally told me what the Astronaut’s Secret is:
People ask why you would risk your life to fly in space, and I tell them it’s in response to a dream and a vision. I tell them about something I call “The Astronaut’s Secret.” It’s a realization all of the astronauts have, which is that we are a member of the whole human family. It goes beyond even being a citizen of the Earth; you are really a citizen of the universe. When you are in orbit, you ask yourself, “Why do people have the differences they have down on Earth?” You see that the Earth is just a small part of a large universe, and you have a feeling about it that is hard to describe.

For me, being in orbit was very comforting. In some ways, I was more comfortable in space than on Earth, and I hated to leave that environment. That is another part of the astronaut’s secret.

So there you have it: the Astronaut’s Secret is pretty obvious, isn’t it: we are confined, for now, to a single planet, but we are really citizens of the universe. A few of our fellow humans, who have left the Earth, looking back and looking out, tell us that it is remarkably comfortable out there, that they felt at home in the universe.

This may seem hard to believe—that we are universal beings, not just planetary beings and that we would be more comfortable out there, where there is no air or water, no plants or trees like we have on Earth. But think about this: when you are a baby, in your mother’s womb, it’s warm, comfortable, and pleasant and all of your needs are supplied. When you are born, though, oh wow, there are sounds and lights and all kinds of things happening to you. There is a reason babies cry when they are born! But you soon adjust and would not want to return to the womb.

And think about the fact that after we are born we grow up and become citizens of the country in which we were born. We know that it carries with it certain rights and obligations. We know, too, that if we want to become a citizen of a country where we were not born, we have to take a citizenship test.

Well, that is what humanity is facing now as we prepare to leave our home planet in large numbers and move out into the solar system. Will we pass the universe’s citizenship test?

It’s up to us. Better start studying!

All astronaut quotes are from The Overview Effect: Space Exploration and Human Evolution. For more information:

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