By Frank White
Many years ago, the great British explorer George Mallory, who was to die on Mount Everest, was asked why did he want to climb it. He said, “Because it is there.” Well, space is there, and we’re going to climb it, and the moon and the planets are there, and new hopes for knowledge and peace are there. And, therefore, as we set sail, we ask God’s blessing on the most hazardous and dangerous and greatest adventure on which [humanity] has ever embarked.President John F. Kennedy, Rice University Speech, 1962 (1)
Many of us believe that space exploration, space development, and Large-Scale Space Migration (LSSM) are critical to the human future. Like Mallory, we are constantly asked “Why? Why is it so important?” We then feel compelled to provide answers, explaining why it makes sense to expand life and intelligence into the solar ecosystem rather than remain restricted within the finite ecosystem of Earth.
We have many answers, of course, but I wonder if we might not respond to the question with a question. Perhaps space advocates ought to turn the query around and ask, “Why not?” Former astronaut Cady Coleman recently said, “The Earth is our ship, Space is our home.” (2)
In saying this, she powerfully reversed the question, and it might be useful to follow her lead. Our very language betrays us in that it creates a false dichotomy between “Earth” and “Space.” We call Earth our “home planet” and we see “Space” (with a capital S) as something “out there,” dark and foreboding, a place that doesn’t welcome humans. In fact, we see it as hostile to us.
So, we must constantly remind ourselves that we are in space, we have always been in space, and we will always be in space. The astronauts don’t really “go into space;” they actually leave the planet and see the “mother ship” and the universe from a different perspective.
As an analogy, let’s say you were on a cruise ship out in the middle of the ocean. Would it make sense to ask, “Why do you want to go on land? This ship is beautiful and has everything you would ever need on it. Of course, it has problems, but why don’t you stay aboard, enjoy the good things, and fix the bad things?”
You would be considered, at best, to be rather limited in your vision of possibilities if you said that. Why go on a cruise if you’re not going to explore all aspects of the environment, including the ports of call along the way?
Chris Boshuizen, who recently flew on Blue Origin’s New Shepard spacecraft with William Shatner and others, said the following to me when I interviewed him for the next edition of my book:
I had an interesting thought about my initial love of space and where that came from. It’s always baffled me that other people don’t feel the same way.
It’s not like something happened to make me a space person, or that “space” is somehow special. In fact, it seems fundamentally normal to me and it just baffles me that other people don’t see it the same way. (3)
So, Chris is also turning the question around. In his mind, he doesn’t need to explain his love of space exploration; you need to explain your lack of interest in it!
Humanity’s “breakout” into the solar ecosystem is the underlying mission of Orbital Assembly Corporation (OAC), which is why I support the company and serve on their advisory board. While their most obvious short-term mission is building the initial infrastructure to support a sustainable human presence in Low Earth Orbit, this and other innovations will eventually enable Large-Scale Space Migration, and their vision is not confined to the hardware, but extends to the kind of civilization it will support.
Beyond this transformation in perspective, we can indeed supply many reasons for space exploration, development, and migration. Among them are inspiration, transformation, economic opportunity, spinoffs, serendipity, and human evolution.
All of these reasons are good ones and I will discuss them in the future. However, in this article, I will focus on the one great benefit of space exploration that stands, in my opinion, above all the others. That is the Overview Effect.
The Overview Effect
Space exploration changes human consciousness and thereby supports human evolution. The Overview Effect represents one of those shifts in awareness and identity, and it is only the beginning.
The Overview Effect is a theory, an experience, and an idea. It would not exist without space exploration, but its initial focus is actually the Earth, not Space. Since I coined the term in the mid-1980s and published my book on the topic in 1987, it has become a ubiquitous phrase that is used to describe the spaceflight experience in three simple words.
As we project the impact of the Overview Effect into the future, it might be worthwhile to review its history.
This theory initially had nothing to do with astronauts, who are now central to it. The original idea focused on future space dwellers who would live permanently off of the Earth. This fact is highly relevant to LSSM.
Shortly after the Apollo 11 Moon landing in 1969, Gerard K. O’Neill asked his physics class at Princeton if a planetary surface, like Mars, would be the best place to locate an expanding multi-planet civilization. After studying the question in some depth, they came to a surprising conclusion: “No.” Having escaped the “gravity well” of Earth, why locate your new civilization at the bottom of another gravity well? Why not build large-scale communities in “free space,” which would be easy to access and leave, rotated to provide artificial gravity, shielded from harmful radiation, and constantly bathed in abundant solar energy.
These speculations led to the creation of the Space Studies Institute (SSI), a nonprofit organization with the mission of advancing the concept of this “High Frontier,” as O’Neill called it. I jumped into SSI’s work with the passion and energy of someone who was coming home after years in exile. My first space-related paper was delivered at an SSI meeting and I introduced the concept of the Overview Effect at a subsequent gathering.
As I’ve often said, “No O’Neill, no Overview.” That’s because the notion of the Overview Effect came to me at a time when I was constantly thinking about what life would be like in an O’Neill community. While flying cross-country and looking down at the Earth, I had the insight that these future “space people” would have an “overview;” they would see the Earth as a whole system, without borders or boundaries, where everything and everybody is interconnected and interrelated. They would, I thought, experience the “Overview Effect,” and their thought processes would simply start at a higher level than for those of us dwelling on the surface of the planet.
I believed that members of these communities would consider it normal to see the Earth in the sky all the time. They would simply know things we have been struggling to understand for millennia, and they would not find this to be extraordinary, any more than we find it strange to see the Moon in our sky. Since there were no “space people” to interview at that time, I began a series of conversations with astronauts as proxies for those future humans.
Something profound happened when I began to interview astronauts. They confirmed much of the hypothesis, like the impact of seeing the Earth as a whole system without borders or boundaries. However, the experience was not ordinary for them, as it might be for those future “O’Neillians.” Rather, it was extraordinary, and for a very good reason: the interviewees had all been born on Earth and all had returned to Earth after their missions. What they saw was a shock for them, and this shifted the hypothesis into a new realm.
As I wrote the first edition of the book, it became clear that the Overview Effect was an overwhelmingly positive experience and it would be beneficial if more people had it. One of the most gratifying developments in the history of this theory is a global movement to “bring the Overview Effect down to Earth,” substituting a unifying worldview for the tribal perspectives that dominate our interactions today.
With the advent of commercial spaceflight sponsored by companies like Virgin Galactic, Blue Origin, and SpaceX, we can assume that hundreds, if not thousands, of people will have the experience that was previously limited to professional astronauts within a few years’ time. Perhaps even more gratifying is that companies like Orbital Assembly, Blue Origin, Axiom, and Voyager Space are building private space stations. Now, spaceflight will have many destinations!
If we are going to have large numbers of people experience the Overview Effect over long periods of time, we are going to need to have the right kind of infrastructure established throughout the solar ecosystem. That’s where OAC comes in and that’s why their mission is so important to our future. (4)
For now, we can be content with, and even excited by, the outcome of this experiment in social change. For those who seek more, we can look forward to the people living in O’Neill communities. Will they also have this new perspective? It seems highly likely that they will, and that they will have the more profound experience of seeing the Earth “in space” as well as “from space.” They will see the whole Earth against the backdrop of the cosmos, as contrasted with being in orbit, where the planet is the primary object, and the viewer does not see all of it.
It is also worth noting that O’Neill envisioned his communities being located at Lagrange points, where the gravitational pulls of Earth and Moon balanced, thereby keeping the cylinders in place more or less in perpetuity. This proximity means that, unlike humans living on Mars, the O’Neillians would be able to easily travel back and forth from their homes to Earth. It also means that they will bring the Overview Effect with them on each trip. In that way, they will bring some of the “astronaut awareness” we have been discussing back to the home planet with relative frequency. (5)
When I began interviewing astronauts, I found that they were eager to talk. They say that spaceflight is a difficult experience to describe, and it really is. As I writer, I found out how hard it is to explain this unique phenomenon. At the same time, space travelers want to share it, because as an astronaut told me, “You don’t go to space for yourself.”
Today, we are entering a totally new era in which non-professional astronauts are going to Space just for the Overview Effect. Unlike the professional astronauts who have paved the way, these “citizen astronauts” are going for the experience. The professional astronauts flew for national security purposes, to do science, or for other reasons.
Experiencing the Overview Effect was a byproduct, and a surprise. The new astronauts may also conduct experiments and engage in the space environment in other ways, but most of them are spending money and even risking their lives for the experience itself.
To date, much of our emphasis in discussing the Overview Effect has been on the impact of the experience on the psychology of individual astronauts, whether they are “professionals” or “citizens.” The astronauts tell us that something happens out there, whether it be on a suborbital hop, in orbit, or on a lunar mission. That “something” is hard to put into words; pictures and videos cannot fully capture it. We have used terms like “cognitive shift,” and “shift in worldview, awareness, or identity,” but we, like the astronauts, may be reaching for the right words to describe the ineffable. The changing nature of identity may well be the best way to understand the full range of responses to the space environment.
All of us have a sense of identity—as male, female, or non-binary; as white, black, or mixed-race; as American, Russian, or global citizen. While these are familiar categories, focusing on them overlooks the fact that there is no sense of “self” without a complementary sense of “other.” Identifying as an American only makes sense because there are more than 100 other countries on Earth, each with a distinct history, laws, and customs.
When astronauts first travel into orbit, they often look for their own countries, or even their own home towns, but something happens to their identity very quickly because those familiar sights are hard to find. Moreover, as they orbit the planet every 90 minutes, even the idea of their home country as a separate entity begins to fade in the face of the wholeness that they are seeing.
In my interview with Apollo 14 astronaut Edgar Mitchell, he provided what might be the definitive statement on this issue. He said, “To me, the difference between getting and not getting an ‘aha’ experience out of it is whether it shifts your structure a bit. Do you get a sense of freedom, of expansiveness, because you’ve just experienced something that is different from your previous experiences and beliefs?” (6)
The astronaut has a shift in his or her own identity, largely because the “other,” whether it be the Earth or the cosmos, looks different than it did before the spaceflight. The astronaut cannot maintain their old sense of self because the “other” has become so radically different.
One flight and one “new astronaut” convinced me that being open is the most important variable of all. This rookie space traveler was, of course, William Shatner. While the 90-year-old actor had played James T. Kirk, Captain of the Starship Enterprise, for many years, neither he nor Kirk had ever been rocketed into outer space and then returned to Earth in a few minutes. When Shatner emerged from the Blue Origin capsule, he seemed stunned and without words for what he had experienced. His conversation with Jeff Bezos was captured on video, and it was clear that something profound had taken place not far from the surface of the Earth, and in a brief period of time. In trying to describe the indescribable, Shatner said that as he looked out into the blackness of the cosmos, “That was death,” and when he looked down at our home planet, “That was life.” (7)
The experience brought tears to his eyes as he tried to explain it to Jeff Bezos, who was there to greet the Blue Origin astronauts when they landed.
The Shatner comments reminded me of the Mitchell statement, even though the distance/time equations for the two were at opposite ends of the spectrum. This gave me the sense that the “human in the loop” is the key variable in the equation.
The psychological impact of the Overview Effect is, of course, fascinating, and worth examining in much greater depth. However, the current thinking among those interested in this phenomenon focuses on “bringing the Overview Effect down to Earth,” with the goal of creating a shift in the consciousness of global society equivalent to the shift we have seen in individual astronauts. This is a sociological approach rather than a psychological one, though it builds, of course, on the changes that take place in individual psyches.
The Gravity of the Situation
We tend to think of “Space” and “weightlessness,” as being synonymous. Typically, when we see astronauts on the International Space Station, or on one of the recent commercial spaceflights, they are floating, and they usually seem to be enjoying it. Inevitably, we identify spaceflight with being free of the Earth’s gravity (also known as one-G.”)
Weightlessness, or “zero-G,” is fun for a while, and I believe it contributes to the impact of the Overview Effect, because of its impact on the brain. At the same time, going from one-G to zero-G is not healthy for the human body, which evolved to perform optimally on Earth, in one-G. Without gravity’s pull, the heart beats more slowly, the bones shed calcium, the immune system is depressed, and eye problems begin to develop. It is because of these changes that astronauts must exercise for two hours a day as a countermeasure. Even so, returning to one-G is very difficult.
Here is one commentary on the impact of weightlessness on the body:
Long-term exposure to the zero gravity causes multiple health problems including redistribution of fluids and loss of bone and muscle mass. Over time, these effects can compromise astronaut performance, which can increase the risk of them being harmed, as well as reduce their ability to absorb oxygen, which slows down their cardiovascular activity. (8)
We could go on with additional articles about the challenges to human health posed by zero-G. However, the point is simple: for anyone who wants to return to one-G, zero-G is a hazardous form of pleasure.
It would be shortsighted to limit our discussion to these two extremes, though. The Moon and Mars, for example, offer something altogether different, .17-G and .38-G, respectively. Unfortunately, we have relatively little data about the impact of these gravity conditions on the human biological system. It may turn out that, while there are some deleterious effects of reduced gravity, these mid-ranges are tolerable for humans in the short- and long-term. Based on what we know today, it would be prudent to assume that some gravity is better than none as we lay the foundations for LSSM.
For those migrants who do not plan to return to Earth, the options appear to be:
- Allowing the body to evolve naturally so that it functions more effectively in zero-G;
- Gene editing to adapt the body to zero-G more rapidly.
These options are sensible, if radical, even though they result in the human body adapting and changing in ways we cannot fully understand. But why not simply adapt to weightlessness and enjoy it? In some of my writings, I have imagined this decision leading to a new species called “Homo spaciens,” a descendant of “Homo sapiens,” but ideally evolved for life in zero-G. However, it would mean that members of this new species probably would not only be prevented from living on Earth but perhaps even unable to visit the home planet. One-G just might be too demanding for them to tolerate.
For those who do plan to return to the Earth, the options are:
- Countermeasures, like those used on the ISS;
- Artificial gravity
The countermeasures answer is rather restrictive and unrealistic. We can ask NASA astronauts to exercise for two hours a day, but it seems unreasonable to imagine so-called “ordinary citizens” doing that. After all, how many people on Earth are so committed to their exercise routines?
This brings us to the most obvious answer, which is so-called “artificial gravity.” This is really a misnomer, because gravity is gravity, however it is achieved. Nevertheless, by whatever name, it provides inhabitants of space communities an option that is the most flexible. This is, of course, the O’Neill solution—communities in free space would offer a hybrid model of artificial gravity for everyday life and zero-G for recreational purposes.
My calculations suggest that we will need billions (with a “b”) of people to migrate off-planet to ease the burden currently being placed on the carrying capacity of the Earth. Gerard K. O’Neill, Jeff Bezos, and others have suggested that moving heavy industry outward would be a major benefit as well. (9)
If we take this on as a planetary project, we might be able to answer the more expansive “why space” question, “Why do you want to go into space when we have so many problems on Earth?” The response will be simple: “We need to go precisely because it will address a major problem facing Earth, i.e., the negative impact of human civilization on our fragile ecosystem.” (10)
How do we make this happen?
The OAC Contribution
Orbital Assembly Corporation is making two major contributions to the vision of space migration outlined in this article:
- Providing an opportunity for large numbers of people to experience the Overview Effect;
- Creating variable-G habitats to support Large-Scale Space Migration.
Let’s consider each of these in turn.
More people experiencing the Overview Effect
As noted earlier, having significant numbers of people experiencing the Overview Effect directly over longer periods of time means that we need to pay attention to building the infrastructure to go beyond missions and move in the direction of migration. OAC remains one of the companies that is paying attention to this long-term issue. (11)
To date, just over 600 people have had the Overview Effect experience, and the advent of commercial spaceflight promises to radically increase this number. However, even if Virgin Galactic, Blue Origin, and SpaceX ramp up their flights, they will need somewhere, other than the International Space Station, to go. That’s why the building of private space stations is so important, and that’s where OAC and the other companies enter the picture.
Based on the experiences of space travelers to date, we already know that the amount of time they spend in Earthgazing can exert a major impact on how deep their experience of the Overview Effect will be. For this reason, the space tourism industry is not going to advance very far on suborbital hops, or even orbital missions. People need a destination, and things to do, on any journey that will have lasting meaning for them.
For the individual “space tourists,” the whole purpose of the flight is the experience itself, i.e., blasting off, rising through the atmosphere, becoming weightless, and then having the stunning view of Earth and the universe that astronauts have described under the rubric of “the Overview Effect.”
As of this writing, Virgin Galactic has had one flight, Blue Origin four, SpaceX two, and Axiom one. The pace is likely to accelerate, and the demand for a destination is likely to increase in volume.
OAC’s first product to market will be the Pioneer-class, hybrid space stations, featuring microgravity ….and a rotating “Gravity Ring.” The [station] will host the largest habitable volume ever put into service on orbit, ready for both work and play. These modules will provide for manufacturing at industrial scale, and for initial tourism activities. Gravity Rings provide variable artificial gravity levels usable for research and manufacturing of new products as well as providing for sustained habitation by workers, and comfortable, safe accommodations for tourists. The plan is to build multiple Pioneer-class stations by the end of the decade. (12)
As I noted earlier, I’m convinced that zero-G is a powerful component of the Overview Effect. We know that weightlessness affects every organ of the body, and the brain is an organ. This might account for the intensity of the Overview experience, in which astronauts talk about colors that are incredibly sharp, and beauty that is beyond what can be experienced on the surface.
Looking to the future, though, we must move beyond the Overview Effect experience, while maintaining an “Overview Effect ethic.” We should realize that space-based research, manufacturing, tourism, and other activities are not ends in themselves , but rather steppingstones and precursors to LSSM. When we consider what is needed for that to happen, OAC’s plans for variable artificial gravity are critical. While those who are paving the way for others—astronauts, technicians, and even space tourists, for example—might be expected to take the risks posed by zero-G, families and workers of the future will want to live in the healthiest possible environment. That means Earthlike gravity, or something very much like it.
Jeff Greason, a member of the OAC Board of Advisors, has written a relevant blog on the question of gravity levels between zero-G and one-G. He notes that the line from the former to the latter might not be linear. In other words, perhaps we should not assume that 60 percent of Earth’s gravity is twice as beneficial as 30 percent.
He points out that while the research is scant, some relevant research has been conducted:
Of the very limited work done on gravity levels between zero and one, much of it involves unicellular organisms centrifuged in the space environment. These organisms do have behavior, and some of it involves response to gravity (for example, sinking “down” below the surface of the water at certain times of day). In broad outline, such organisms start exhibiting their “normal” gravity orientation behavior in the 0.12-0.3 “g” range. The Russians also flew some satellites with various small animals in a small centrifuge, and the experiment allowed the animals to select the gravity level they seemed to prefer by moving in and out of the centrifuge radius…The animals seem to prefer 0.3-0.5 “g”. All of these seem to indicate that there is some “lower threshold” of “enough” gravity. (13)
Considering the fact that the Moon’s gravity is .17 g, and Mars is .38 g, it might turn out that these levels are relatively comfortable and healthy for humans and other organisms.
The Apollo flights offer some insight into what happens when humans are on the Moon, and Greason comments on these findings as well:
The *ONLY* human exposure data we have in between 0 “g” and 1 “g” is the Apollo astronauts on the Lunar surface – and there, they reported that they felt better and, for those who had sleeping arrangements on later missions, they reported sleeping better and more deeply at 0.16 “g” than at 0 “g”, suggesting that the curve of “goodness” is rather steep. (14)
Greason also points out that planetary surfaces are not the only options for space migration. As we noted in some detail earlier, if someone does build an O’Neill community between the Earth and the Moon, it will provide a variety of gravity environments, including one-G and zero-G. However, we should look at alternative paths right now, because only Blue Origin is talking, even speculatively, about translating O’Neill’s vision into reality.
The next destination milestone on our development roadmap is construction of our Voyager-class stations. The Voyager flagship will be the [largest] multiple module industrial park on orbit. Like the Pioneer class stations, Voyager provides hybrid gravity facilities, offering an unprecedented level of access to the space ecosystem for commercial, industrial, and leisure market sectors, and for government interests. (15)
“Variable gravity” will be valuable, especially for space science and commercial applications. While we have enough research on zero-G to understand its negative impact on living things, we have a lot to learn about gravitational environments between zero-G and one-G. This is a fruitful area for basic scientific research and experiments that might yield commercial products and services. As Greason suggests, it is remarkable that, after 61 years of human spaceflight, we know so little about the gravity environments between zero-G and one-G. OAC’s plans offer an opportunity to do the kind of research that is needed to pave the way for LSSM.
Moreover, anything that is attractive to industry is extremely valuable. We will need to move industrial facilities off of the planet, as well as people, if we are going to see Large-Scale Space Migration taking place.
The Pioneer and Voyager-class fleet of space stations are not limited to multiple Earth- bound orbits. As the market demands, we have the capacity to position stations anywhere in cislunar space and beyond. Our technology feeds forward into even larger stations and habitats that will allow us to quickly scale and respond to evolving market demands as we grow and continue to innovate with all market segments. (16)
As an enabler of LSSM, this statement represents OAC’s most essential contribution.
At the same time, this issue is so important that we will consider it in detail in a future blog post.
Summary and Conclusions
One way to consider what governments and private companies are doing in outer space is to look at the present, when most of their activities are clustered close to the Earth. A more comprehensive approach is to look at the long-term future, when humanity moves from LEO to LSSM. There is a lot to do in Low Earth Orbit and in the Cislunar region. However, if we are to imagine the entire solar ecosystem as the future home of humanity, we are given a different lens through which to view space programs and private planning.
OAC is one of a handful of organizations whose strategies take into account this “big picture.” In future blog posts, we will continue to consider OAC and its contributions to LSSM in more detail.
(To be continued)
(1) NASA, “John F. Kennedy Moon Speech – Rice Stadium,” 9/12/62, https://er.jsc.nasa.gov/seh/ricetalk.htm
(2) M. Ravisetti, “NASA astronaut: More than one road to space, ‘one of those roads is for you’,” CNET, 9/22/21, https://www.cnet.com/science/former-nasa-astronaut-theres-more-than-one-road-to-space-one-of-those-roads-is-for-you/
(3) “Space Philosophy with Frank White,” Multiverse Media, LLC, 3/24/22, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eto8rwcAxBI&t=10s
(4) Frank White statement on OAC website, https://orbitalassembly.com
(5) “The High Frontier: The Untold Story of Gerard K. O’Neill,” Multiverse Media, LLC, https://thehighfrontiermovie.com
(6) F. White, The Overview Effect: Space Exploration and Human Evolution, Multiverse Publishing, LLC, 2021.
(7) CNN News, “’The most profound experience I can imagine’: Emotional William Shatner recounts space trip,”https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NSNXBvpLb9o
(8) I. Magen, PhD, “The Dangers of Zero Gravity,” Davidson Institute of Science Education, Science Panorama, 2/27/17. https://davidson.weizmann.ac.il/en/online/sciencepanorama/dangers-zero-gravity
(9) F. White, “How Much Space is in Space?” unpublished paper, 2021.
(11) OAC website, https://orbitalassembly.com
(12) Email from Tim Alatorre, COO of Orbital Assembly Corporation, March 22, 2022
(13) J. Greason, “Gravity and Health,” https://tauzerostore.org/blogs/news/gravity-and-health
(15) Email from Tim Alatorre, COO of Orbital Assembly Corporation, March 22, 2022.
(c) Copyright Frank White, 2022, All Rights Reserved.
Published with permission by Orbital Assembly Corporation