By Frank White
The International Astronautical Congress (IAC) celebrated its 70th anniversary this past year, which means it has been around since 1949, long before humans began leaving the home planet and traveling into orbit or to the Moon. So it is likely the oldest organization of its kind and it certainly looked like the largest conference of its type. I was told there were 10,000 people there, which I can’t confirm, but I do know that there were 28 keynote addresses, which implies a significant gathering.
Originally, I had intended to write about the question, “What is the philosophy of the IAC?” but this quest quickly evolved into “What is going on with the Overview Effect at the IAC?” While not as broad as the first question, it does point to the extent to which there was philosophical dialogue at the event.
My time at the IAC began with the Space for Humanity (S4H) fundraising event in Virginia the evening of October 22. This was a gathering of friends and supporters of S4H and I suppose I should not have been surprised at how many of them had heard of the Overview Effect. After all, helping people to experience the Overview Effect is at the heart of the organization’s mission.
Still, the centrality of the Overview Effect concept really crystallized when former astronaut Michael Lopez-Alegria, the guest of honor, shared his experiences in orbit with the gathering. His discussion was mesmerizing and likely stoked the enthusiasm of the audience for S4H and the Overview Effect. At one point, he said something like “Frank White has captured the essence of the spaceflight experience in his book, The Overview Effect.”
It was a bit unsettling to be acknowledged in that way, in front of so many people, but it was also another indication of the extent to which the concept has come to be accepted as a reality by many people.
Of course, one of the strongest contenders for “bringing the Overview Effect down to Earth” is virtual reality, which has become a kind of Holy Grail quest for those who believe that a widespread Overview experience would help to make our world a better place.
Along those lines, it was significant to meet Amaresh Kollipara and his colleague, Alicia Kavelaars. Amaresh is chair of the S4H board of advisors and he has been working on developing a VR experience of the Overview Effect for quite a while now. We had a long talk at the event and our conversation continues, with MaryLiz Bender and Ryan Chylinski of Cosmic Perspective joining the discussion.
I met several other people at the S4H event who were knowledgeable about the Overview Effect and its potential. Detailing each of these encounters is not necessary to make the point that the Overview Effect seemed to permeate many conversations that evening. I came away thinking that the astronaut experience has really begun to make its way into the mainstream of society.
On Day Two, I was scheduled to deliver the keynote address on “The Overview Effect and the Arts” at a session on space exploration and the arts. I began the day by finding my way to a room that had been set aside for speakers to load their power point presentations. It turned out that the IAC routinely hires an entire company of people to focus on making sure these presentations are loaded and ready to go when the time comes.
A very nice guy began helping me and we focused initially on the technical aspects of transferring the information to the computer. Eventually, though, he noticed the content of the presentation and we had an unexpected interaction.
“Oh, are you Frank White?”
“Yes, I am.”
“The Overview Effect?”
“I’ve been following the Overview Effect for years.”
“Because what you describe happening to astronauts sounds a lot like some of my own experiences.”
He went on to explain that he had had an out-of-the-body experience similar to that recounted by Edgar Mitchell in his interview with me. He said he began to identify with objects in the room and then outside the room and then into outer space, and eventually he identified with the entire universe. As I noted in The Overview Effect: Space Exploration and Human Evolution, Mitchell’s experience is atypical and significant enough that I called it “the Universal Insight,” a kind of amplified Overview Effect. Today, I might call it something else, like “The Overview Effect of the Third Kind.”
Regardless, it seems to me that a concept has permeated the culture when an encounter of this kind can occur at a conference.
Since my talk did not begin until mid-afternoon, I was then able to spend time exploring the exhibition hall and meeting people who were attending the conference.
The convention center in DC is huge and occupies two buildings. On locating the one housing the exhibition hall, I asked for directions and was sent on a very long (and tiring) walk from the entrance, down a flight of stairs, to a large room that turned out to be allocated to an Air Traffic Controllers’ convention. It took a while to sort things out and to make my way back to the information desk, where the greeter apologized profusely for her mistake. I wearily told her not to worry about it, and I meant it, but I wished I could get back the time and energy that this wild goose chase took up!
Once inside the correct hall, it was still a challenge to find a specific person or organization. I was looking for anyone working with the Overview Effect and I started with SpaceBuzz. My colleague Duncan Mackenzie and I had met with the two main founders of SpaceBuzz, Hidde Hoogscarpel and Goren van Gessel in Amsterdam in 2017.
We were impressed with Hidde and Goren’s enthusiasm for their project, which was simple to describe, but sounded daunting to achieve, at least in our minds. Their plan was to build a huge “space bus,” a vehicle that looked like a spacecraft. They would then drive it around the Netherlands to all the schools and take the children on a virtual reality trip into orbit, where the kids would experience the Overview Effect. The journey would be narrated by a Dutch astronaut, Andre Kuipers.
Hidde is incredibly energetic and committed and I believed that if anyone could pull this off, he could. In addition, I was impressed by a comment Goren made over the dinner. He is actively involved with the World Wildlife Fund, a cause that is close to his heart. He told us something to the effect that, “I don’t think organizations like the World Wildlife Fund can succeed without the shift in consciousness that is brought about by the Overview Effect.”
This is exactly the point that I and my colleagues at the Overview Institute (especially David Beaver) have been making: organizations interested in changing the world should work on changing our worldview, because that is the best way to get people to address global problems.
In the two years since that dinner, Hidde and his team have raised a lot of money and actually built the bus, which they somehow transported to DC and to the IAC. When I found them at the far end of the hall, Goren was there, though Hidde had not made the trip.
I was greeted with enthusiasm by Goren and his team and ushered in for a VIP’s tour of the Space Bus and for the Overview Effect experience itself.
I must say, I was impressed. With the VR headset on, you are suddenly surrounded by what appears to be a very real spacecraft. Up ahead, you see a pilot and co-pilot, a viewing screen, and (as I recall) a simulation of Dutch astronaut Andre Kuipers, who narrates the entire journey, from liftoff to touchdown.
When the ship takes off, it shakes and rattles and provides a pretty realistic feeling for what liftoff must be like in real life. The experience itself is then an orbit of the Earth, narrated by Kuipers, with a strong emphasis on the environmental aspects of this new view of the home planet. As I emerged from the space bus, the SpaceBuzz team anxiously awaited my reaction.
I told them it was really great, which it was, and they breathed a collective sigh of relief. I heard somebody say something to the effect of, “Thank goodness! If he hadn’t liked it, we would have had to start all over.”
In addition to seeing Goren again, I was delighted to meet Professor Max Louwerse of Tilburg University,
who is conducting studies of how the children react to the experience. This kind of empirical evidence of an actual shift in awareness is sorely needed if the Overview Effect is going to be taken seriously.
After experiencing SpaceBuzz, I was interested in catching up with Felix and Paul, who are taking a different approach to using VR in communicating the Overview Effect. A member of the Felix and Paul team, Mathieu Dumont, was in touch with me and we agreed to meet at a NASA exhibit, where they were offering the opportunity to look at a five-minute portion of their efforts with virtual reality. I knew about Felix and Paul through contacts at NASA; the agency was working with them and with Time Magazine to produce a VR series called “the ISS Experience.”
There is one major difference between what they are doing and the approach of other VR companies when it comes to communicating the Overview Effect: they have actually sent virtual reality cameras to the International Space Station and filmed the Earth from that unique vantage point. When I put on the headset and watched a short clip of their efforts to date, I found it to be very impressive. The experience lacked the simulated flight into orbit, ala SpaceBuzz, but it also did not require the suspension of disbelief that digitally created Earth models require. All of us who are interested in “bringing the Overview Effect down to Earth” should be looking forward to the ISS Experience that Felix and Paul are producing.
I also had a moment to spend some time with Rodger Williams and David Arthur, my editors, along with Megan Scheidt, at AIAA for the second and third editions of The Overview Effect. We reflected on the fact that the AIAA took on the project of publishing a second edition after Houghton-Mifflin, the original publisher, declined the opportunity. The late Ken Cox, who had worked on Apollo as an engineer, served on the AIAA’s board and he convinced them to publish the book, even though it was outside their usual areas of interest. I acknowledged them (and Ken) for saving the Overview Effect concept, which they really did.
After chatting with them and thanking them for their years of support, I had a final encounter that convinced me: the Overview Effect has truly permeated the culture, at least the aerospace/space exploration community.
I met Mark Williamson, commissioning editor of ROOM, a publication of Asgardia, “the first space nation.” He knew about my work and we had a nice chat about the Overview Effect. He then asked me if I would like to write an article for ROOM and suggested the title “Are We Entering a Post-Overview Effect Era?” or something along those lines.
Although this was a relatively quiet moment in relationship to the entire congress, it was among the most significant for me. It meant that some three decades after the introduction of the Overview Effect hypothesis in my book in 1987, there was a knowledgeable person, an editor of a respected magazine, who not only knew about the Overview Effect but was wondering if it had been “an era,” and if that era might be reaching an inflection point.
I agreed to write the article for the magazine and in drafting it, I realized that, yes, we probably are entering a “post-Overview Effect era,” and that this is a good thing. Philosophically, this interaction is very important in grasping the overall impact of the Overview Effect phenomenon.
When I first began my personal quest for the Overview Effect, I thought of it as something ordinary. I imagined that space settlers would be accustomed to seeing the Earth in the sky, just as we are used to seeing the Moon in the sky. Of course, we often wax rhapsodic about our satellite’s beauty, are aware of its phases, and know it is a sphere that revolves around the Earth, just as our own planet revolves around the sun as it moves through the universe. However, we are not shocked or surprised to see the Moon in that way. We take it for granted. The great paradigm shift for space settlers will be to see the Earth in the sky (and the Moon, of course) rather than the Moon.
From a space philosophy perspective, that was the whole point. As I wrote in The Overview Effect: Space Exploration and Human Evolution:
People living in space settlements will always have an overview! They will be able to see how everything is related, that what appears to be “the world” to people on Earth is merely a small planet in space, and what appears to be “the present” is merely a limited viewpoint to one looking from a higher level. People who live in space will take for granted philosophical insights that have taken those on Earth thousands of years to formulate. They will start at a place we have labored to attain over several millennia. (1)
My presentation on the Overview Effect and the Arts could have seemed somewhat anti-climactic after all of these encounters during the prior evening and the day leading up to it. However, it actually confirmed much of what I had been learning before the session. It seemed especially meaningful that my talk served as the keynote address for a session that included 11 outstanding artists who have been doing amazing work in the field of space art. It was also impressive that the room, which held about 100 people, was full. (2)
Conducting research for the paper and then giving the presentation opened up an entirely new world of understanding about the Overview Effect and its impact on society. It helped me to realize that artists may actually be leading the global movement to “bring the Overview Effect down to Earth” and having far more impact than we previously understood.
If so, it may turn out that we will indeed begin taking the insights of the Overview Effect for granted. If that happens, this new philosophical perspective might be what we need in order to save our planetary civilization and begin a positive, beneficial exploration of the solar system.
White, F., The Overview Effect: Space Exploration and Human Evolution, American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics (AIAA), Reston, VA, 2014
Among the presenters were Daniela de Paulis and Richard Clar, who co-chaired the session and invited me to make the presentation. I am grateful to them for the opportunity. My friends at Cosmic Perspective, MaryLiz Bender and Ryan Chylinski, recorded the talk and it can be viewed on YouTube (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=atUXcfzQKSA&t=64s). The paper that accompanied the talk has also been posted on this website.
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