California Coast (NASA, International Space Station, 07/12/11)

The Future Has Arrived

By Frank White

The day and time remain unclear, but my moment of clarity about the future is vivid and unforgettable.

In 1987, I was finishing the first edition of The Overview Effect: Space Exploration and Human Evolution, and it was obvious, from what the astronauts had told me, that the Overview Effect was an overwhelmingly positive experience. The first glimmer of a thought emerged at that time: wouldn’t it be transformational if thousands, even millions, of people had this experience?

It was equally obvious that commercial spaceflight and simulations of some kind would be the way for large numbers of people to become “Overviewers.” Virtual reality was not a term I used then, but that is obviously what I meant.

It’s worth remembering that this was during the Space Shuttle era, it was before the International Space Station was built, and the World Wide Web did not exist (the Internet did, but it was used primarily by government agencies). Almost everyone who had experienced the Overview Effect up to that point had been NASA astronauts and Soviet cosmonauts. The notion that this would become a ubiquitous opportunity for the rest of us seemed like science fiction at the time.

Virtual reality experiments were going on as well, but, again, not as a broadly available consumer product.

Today, all of that has changed. While suborbital flights are not yet widely accessible because of the cost, Blue Origin is taking paying customers on these brief “hops” relatively routinely. Virtual reality has moved out of the lab and onto Meta (parent of Facebook) and other platforms.

The “holy grail” that unites these two is virtual reality that reproduces, with some fidelity, the spaceflight experience. To the extent that this can be accomplished, the promise of the Overview Effect will be realized, without the controversy that commercial spaceflight may engender (because of environmental concerns, for example).

An experience called “The Infinite” is being hailed by some as being very close to the real thing. Developed by Felix and Paul Studios in Montreal, in conjunction with NASA, this goes beyond putting on a headset and entering a VR “world.” Participants do don headsets, but in the context of a large open space where they can feel that they are actually inside the International Space Station and/or on an EVA.

Another piece of the commercial spaceflight puzzle is the private space station. If
commercial space is going to become a major industry, rather than a flash in the pan, brief trips are not enough; people need somewhere to go and stay for a while.

When I have interviewed astronauts about their experiences, they often make a distinction between being on a short Space Shuttle flight and an extended International Space Station mission. They note that Shuttle missions have packed schedules, with a lot to accomplish and not much time to look out at the Earth. By contrast, there is actually time off on the ISS and a cupola that is well designed for “Earthgazing.”

California Coast (NASA, International Space Station, 07/12/11)
California Coast (NASA, International Space Station, 07/12/11) by NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center is licensed under CC-BY-NC 2.0

The Future is Closer

When I looked ahead to commercial spaceflight in 1987, the idea of flights like those of Blue Origin, SpaceX, and Virgin Galactic seemed far off, but conceivable. The notion of space stations, like those that Orbital Assembly aspires to build, seemed like a “bridge too far.” At the time, after all, human experience with space stations was scant. The Soviet Union had built Salyut and Mir, and the United States had built Skylab. However, even something as amazing as the ISS was still only in the planning stages.

Skylab Artist Concept (NASA Archive, 1972)
Skylab Artist Concept (NASA Archive, 1972) by NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center is licensed under CC-BY-NC 2.0

The Future has Arrived

Today, however, the future has arrived. Just as we are considering the final years of the International Space Station, private efforts are taking the stage.

Orbital Assembly is among the actors in this new drama. Some observers have tried to characterize it as another “space race,” but it really isn’t. Each company that is committing resources to commercially developed space stations in
Low Earth Orbit has its own unique approach to the task. Humanity as a whole will benefit from multiple paths to creating infrastructure of this kind.

However, as we discussed in an earlier blog, the real challenge is the bigger picture, involving the solar ecosystem and Large-Scale Space Migration (LSSM). We need to encourage planning that will allow companies to scale their LEO designs to much larger “spaces,” around the Moon itself and beyond.

In the words of CEO Rhonda Stevenson, “While our plans call for the Pioneer station to be operational as early as 2026, our vision extends far beyond that first step. Our goal is nothing less than building the infrastructure for humanity to work, play, and thrive throughout the solar ecosystem.”

The future has arrived.

Conceptual render of Pioneer Station in LEO

About the Author

Frank White is a magna cum laude graduate of Harvard College, a member of Phi Beta Kappa, and a Rhodes Scholar. He earned an M.Phil. in Politics from Oxford University, where he was a member of New College. The fourth edition of Frank’s best-known book, The Overview Effect: Space Exploration and Human Evolution, was published by Multiverse Publishing, a division of Multiverse Media LLC, in 2022. Frank is president of The Human Space Program, Inc., a nonprofit organization based on an idea initially proposed in The Overview Effect.

(c) Copyright Frank White, 2023, All Rights Reserved. Published with permission by Above Space