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Frank White and the Overview Effect.

Frank White’s book The Overview Effect: Space Exploration and Human Evolution, describes the cognitive shift that results when viewing the Earth from space.





What effect does space travel have on humans beyond the physical? Space Philosopher Frank White wrote the first edition of “The Overview Effect: Space Exploration and Human Evolution” in 1987. He has spoken to over 50 astronauts to date and has studied the cognitive shift that results when viewing the Earth from space. But do commercial astronauts experience this on suborbital flights? We ask the expert.

You can connect with Frank on LinkedIn and find out more about his books on his website.

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[ Music ]

>> Alice Carruth: Welcome to T-minus Deep Space. I'm Alice Carruth, producer of the T-minus Space Daily Podcast. Deep space includes extended interviews and bonus content that takes a deeper look into some of the topics we cover on our daily program.

[ Music ]

In this episode, our host Maria Varmazis spoke to Frank White. We're big fans of Frank's research at N2K, and with the increase in access to space, we think this extended episode is timely. More than 30 years ago, Frank White coined the term "the overview effect," to describe the cognitive effect that results from viewing the earth from space. I'll let Maria and Frank explain more.

>> Maria Varmazis: I read The Overview Effect, when I was in college initially and I reread it recently in preparation for speaking with you. So, I'm really generally thrilled, to speaking with you. The reason, we have you on the show today is to talk a little bit about, The Overview Effect in relation to, not just the increased cadence of space flight that's happening, but specifically that increased cadence within commercial space flight. There is a lot of discussion that people have, or at least I've heard it over pub drinks and the like about, is it going to make a difference when we have people going to space who are not traditional astronauts, and, does that even matter, especially in relation to "the overview effect?" So, by all means, I'd love to hear your thoughts on that.

>> Frank White: In the early days of doing research on "the overview effect," I was mostly talking to people who did not go there, to look at the earth, or to have that experience. Going back to the Apollo era it was, the race to the moon. And then, increasingly it was to do science, and international cooperation on the ISS. And the astronauts really discovered "overview effect" on their own, and that is to say, "Something happened." "I felt different when I came back" "I had a shift of awareness from seeing the earth from space and in space." Increasingly as I've looked back at my interviews, they've also had an impact of looking beyond the earth into the universe. And when I first published, the book in 1987, those were the, kind of people that I interviewed. And that persisted right up until the most recent edition. And, now, I've started interviewing the commercial astronauts. and, in particular, I do have several interviews with people who've flown on a Blue Origin flight. And there's no, preference for Blue, that's who I've been able to secure for an interview. I'm action to interview Virgin flyers as well. And if you'd like, I could, expand a bit on what's different and what's the same, about these flights. From the very beginning, I did not take a rigid scientific approach to the interviews, they are self-reporting. I wanted to have large sample sizes. I think we're almost up to 50 people now. But, I did not do a typical, large sample size social science study. However, I've always looked at it from a scientific point of view in the sense of, we have a hypothesis about this phenomenon, and then the interviews are the data that either confirm or reject what we're thinking. And initially I wasn't even thinking about astronauts, I was really speculating about people living permanently in outer space, looking back at the earth and seeing it from a distance. And, there were no such people at the time, so I started interviewing astronauts to see if that confirmed my hypothesis that, having an overview would make a difference. And, in those early interviews I found that it did, but it was not what I expected in terms of space dwellers in that it was, extraordinary for astronauts to see the earth that way. I kind of thought it would be ordinary for people, who lived permanently off the planet, but, when you leave the earth and go outward, it's a bit of a shock to see the earth that way. And now to get to the commercial side, we have, a lot of differences in what's happening. First of all, not a lot of training for the most part. And secondly, they're going for the experience, for the most part. And then, they're, looking at much shorter flights, sub-orbital flights, and that's a big difference. So, I had people say to me that, the commercial astronauts on Blue and Virgin would not experience what I call "The Overview Effect," because, they'd be too close to the earth and it would be too brief, and, it just wasn't going to happen. And I thought, well, that makes sense, I hear what you're saying, but we're going to be good scientists let's just get some data. And I pointed out, remarkably the United States only has sent astronauts on two sub-orbital flights, and that was Alan Shepard and Gus Grissom. So, Alan Shepard did have a comment about his experience that, very strongly, indicated that something happened. He said, he's looked at all these pictures, he had prepared himself for the flight, but nobody could be prepared for the view that he saw. And I included that in the book even though I never interviewed him. Well, that indicated something. But, now I started interviewing Blue Origin astronauts and they are on a remarkably fast flight, it's like 11 to 13 minutes --

>> Maria Varmazis: Yes. Yeah.

>> Frank White: -- on there. And, you would think, it is too fast, it is, too brief and you're not very far from the surface, but then when I talk to them it seems like something significant does occur for most of them. And many people saw William Shatner.

>> Maria Varmazis: Yes. Yeah, that very famous occurrence. I remember watching that live when it happened.

>> Frank White: When he came out he was deeply moved, deeply moved. He was close to tears. It was difficult to articulate what happened. It's been interpreted as a negative experience, but I think that's too simplistic. I think, it was powerful, and it was something other astronauts have reported in different ways which is, they see how tiny the earth is against the backdrop of the universe, how fragile it is. They come back with a feeling, "We've got to do something to protect the environment." And, he had gone with an expectation of joy, it was going to be joyful. And for some people it is joyful, but this sense of fragility and responsibility, is something professional astronauts who took longer trips have reported. Another constant, is we don't think of astronauts crying. There's a famous Tom Hanks comment in a film called A League of Their Own. And he says, "There's no crying in baseball." And people think astronauts don't cry, but they do. And I've talked to professional and commercial astronauts, who cry when they see the earth. They don't know why. They're not sure. Jean-François Clervoy, who is a French astronaut said, He felt a sense of love and it brough him to tears. He said, I think it's even more than the beauty of it. And, Other astronauts have talked about tears coming into their eyes unexpectedly when they first see the earth. And we see this with Shatner, And we see it with other commercial fliers where they're moved deeply. And, one of the things that Shatner talked about was, he talked about how you go from the blue sky to the blackness of space, really quickly. He said something like, it's like the sheep being ripped off your bed when you wake up, and there's this sudden change. And I've talked to others like Glen de Vries who, talked about, you go from, the blue to black, and back to blue very quickly. And it appears, at least on Blue Origin what you would think would be a detriment seems to be a benefit in terms of how important the experience is, because this rapid asset appears to heighten how people feel.

>> Maria Varmazis: It almost sounds like a relief to return to earth in that case.

>> Frank White. Indeed. Yeah. And, you don't have a lot of time to be weightless. You don't have a lot of time to look out the window at the earth, but still it appears to me that people know that in advance so they're very prepared. I believe that, people have, begun to realize the time is quite precious. So, we really, we have to use it effectively. The emotion doesn't always come during the flight. When I talked to Katya Echazarreta, who was sent on a Space for Humanity flight, she talked about, after the flight. It was flying home, and she flew over the same region she had seen from outer space and she started crying, right then and there. And she was able to pull herself together; she looked out the window and started crying again. And, it's not that clear, you know, what caused that, but it was definitely connected to the flight even though it was later. And, that might be a part of how quick a blue origin flight would be. And, Sara Sabry, who also was a Space for Humanity, flyer, a citizen astronaut, and the first person from Egypt to go into outer space, had a really interesting comment of the lack of distinction between Earth and space. What's really important, Every talk I give I say, we are in space, we've always been in space, we'll always be in space. And that astronauts don't go into space, they leave the planet. This is hard for people to feel, it's hard for me to feel it because our senses don't tell us that, we just feel like we're on this unmoving stable platform. And even though we use the metaphor, 'Spaceship earth', we don't experience being on 'Spaceship earth'. And Sara, when I interviewed her, I had a before flight interview with her and after it I said, "Well, what happened? What changed?" And she said that, "The distinction between earth and space went away and she just felt it was all just a continuum." Maria Varmazis: Mm.

>> Frank White: And I was, really, really interested in that because, in my mind, that is probably the top of my list of what we should get out of space flight is, we have this dichotomy between earth and space, earth and space. I think it's confusing, And if we came to understand in a way where all astronauts on 'Spaceship Earth,' and we need to start thinking like that, it would benefit us on the earth. And, that to me is what the commercial space flights are about, a large number of people having the "overview effect" experience will, I believe, produce social change back on the surface. It's not just about, leaving the earth. And I've always insisted that, we're not abandoning the earth, those of us who are part of the, what I call "the overview effect movement," we're not abandoning the earth, we can't abandon the earth. We're just expanding into a larger environment, you know? The earth is the center of that. As Jeff Bezos says, "it's the best planet." We're on the best planet.

>> Maria Varmazis: We're a little biased but that's okay.

[ Laughing ]

>> Frank White: I also think, some of the commercial carriers, or many of them, have to come to understand that, they really need to communicate that, you know, what they're doing is not just to give people a joyride, it's to benefit earth. And, I'm glad they're realizing that, because, from the very beginning when I was writing the book and realizing what the astronauts were telling me, it struck me, well, this could really be good for the planet, that, people have this new perspective.

>> Maria Varmazis: How long does the paradigm shift or cognitive shift last for, from what you've seen from the commercial astronaut set? Does it last as long?

>> Frank White: I don't have any really good information on that because I haven't really had a chance to talk to them, retrospectively after they've been back for a while. My guess would be that, it's very similar to the professional astronauts. What I think happens is that, the experience becomes a memory. That, like any profound experience you cannot stay in that state, of, adrenaline flow and you know, excitement at what happened. You really can't stay there forever, you have to function in the real world. But what I think I would see is over the long term, that memory, does have an impact on how the astronauts see the world. And you know, some of them, this is something that's been talked about, quite a bit about, "the overview effect," do people really change their lives? And, that's a very interesting question. And, Nicole Stott has written a book about return to Earth, where she's thought about that more. But, what I've seen is, in the original astronaut core we have Edgar Mitchell, who came back and started the, Institute and Noetic Sciences. And that certainly was a change, not a change in his interest, because he was always interested in consciousness, but he started an organization. And, And Katya Echazarreta came back, and she, left her work at NASA, which she could have continued, and decided to start an organization to bring these opportunities to people in Mexico, especially young children. So, we see a range of responses where, for some people, it's a shift in their consciousness, but maybe their everyday life doesn't look dramatically different. And then, for other people, it's significantly different. And that's why commercial flight is very interesting. Virgin Galactic has 800 customers lined up.

>> Maria Varmazis: Amazing to think more than double of what we've already had [laughing], that is just waiting.

>> Frank White: If you think about the numbers, let's say 800 people fly, they have this experience, "the overview effect," if even a small percentage come back to earth and do something profoundly valuable for the earth, that's a huge benefit. And, I don't think every NASA astronaut has changed their life dramatically, or their behavior, but their, point of view has changed. And I don't think everybody flying on a commercial flight, will come back, and, start a new organization or get involved in the environmental movement, but, another aspect of it is that, the people flying early, are generally going to have resources, to actualize whatever they decide to do. There's been a lot of talk about how, at the moment these flights are only available at a high cost, but of course that's how the airline industry started too, and, you know, it's not a good business model to keep catering to a high price or to, high net worth people. I interviewed Sir Richard Branson for my book, the third edition, and he definitely has the democratization of space flight in mind. He wants to bring the price down and give everybody this opportunity. From "the overview effect" point of view, if we can have a reasonable percentage of people either reinforce something they're already doing, or accelerate something they're already doing, or even changing what they're doing in life, I think it's going to be worthwhile. And, going back to hypothesis. The hypothesis is, that the needed change in attitude on the service will certainly be enhanced by commercial space flight.

[ Music ]

>> Maria Varmazis: We'll be back after this.

[ Music ]

Maria Varmazis: I have the first edition of your book where I think the number was 200 had been to space at that time. And, when I reread it recently I said, wow, we're 600, how much has changed since then. And it will be interesting to see once we, get to the point where space flight becomes much like air flight is now, where we don't have this self-selecting group of very well-off people who can go. How much the overview effect will persist, from maybe folks who are self-selecting to go and if, it affects people maybe who are taking the experience for granted. Which is hard for me to imagine right now, but I know, maybe not in my lifetime but it will happen, and it'll be fascinating to see. Although, again, I may not be there to see it. I wanted to go back to the thread about you were mentioning about the new astronauts, you had a thought on that and I wanted to make sure I picked that back up again. Was it about specifically the new astronauts in the commercial space or was it, are we thinking about the Artemis program? I just wanted to make sure I went back to that.

>> Frank White: Oh, I was still thinking about the commercial astronauts. I think that, they also, have a bond as to the professional astronauts. And the professional astronauts created the Association of Space Explorers, and that was pretty radical at the time because it was astronauts and cosmonauts from different countries coming together, even during the waning days of the Cold War. And so, the other aspect of it that could be very important is, creating a, community, of people who've had this experience, so that they can support one another in whatever they choose to do afterward. That's going to be really important if we want to use it for social change and, benefit. And I know that Virgin, in particular has focused pretty heavily on creating a community before the flight. And I'm sure they are hoping to do that after the flight. And, I think that will be important because otherwise you're coming back and you've had this profound experience but, nobody around you is going to fully understand it. And so --

>> Maria Varmazis: How isolating.

>> Frank White: -- yeah. And it's like any profound experience. You know, there's this constant refrain with combat veterans, people will say, "You know, my father came back, he didn't want to talk about it. He didn't want to discuss it." I don't know if they didn't want to, but, there might have been a feeling that, they knew the people they were talking to wouldn't fully understand it. And I believe this is going to be an important aspect of the commercial space flight opportunity. The other thing to, think about, is, multiple flights, where people will go back. And that's another thing I've picked up from talking to people who've flown already. I'm sure this was true of the professional astronauts too, but wanting to go back. Chris Boshuizen had a really interesting experience on a Blue Origin Flight. He told me the whole idea of seeing the earth as the fragile nursery of humanity was very familiar to him. And, he's a cofounder of Planet, which is all about imagery of the earth from outer space. But he said that what surprised him was a pull outward into the cosmos. A feeling of wanting to go further. And, that was interesting in that, it is more like what Apollo astronauts talked about. Because, you know, when you go to the moon you're much further away from the earth than when you're in orbit. And that sense of the immensity of the universe, and the earth is a small part of it, is much more a lunar or Apollo-type experience. And he had it on this very brief flight, and it made him want to return. And, Mark and Sharon Hagel are the first married couple to go on a commercial flight and they're planning to go back. And I think this has implications for a much bigger issue way beyond this immediate question, and that's the whole issue of large scale space migration. In the sense that, it will be really interesting to see if, those who have this initial experience want to, experience more of the environment that they've, they really just had a taste of it, you know? Certainly, you would expect a NASA astronaut to say, "Yeah, I went to the International Space Station, I want to be selected for Artemis" or "I want to go Mars." I mean, you expect that. Maria Varmazis: You do, it's true.

>> Frank White: However, what about the commercial flights? Is that going to, give people a desire to do more and maybe to do more, and maybe to help build a new off-world civilization, you know? I think the answer is yes, but what's also important about it is that, we could really benefit the earth by expanding our range. This is something that's been talked about since the earliest days and Gerard K. O'Neill, who's one of my mentors, talked about, if we build the O'Neill communities that he talked about, if we move industry off the planet, and we reduce population pressure on the earth, the earth could recover environmentally from some of the impact we've had. And it would be really interesting is we find out in the future that these early flights, began a movement that's much larger than just space tourism. Is it going to move us from mission to migration? I'm really interested in that, and the Human Space Program, which is, the nonprofit that I cofounded, our mission is to support the inclusive, sustainable, and ethical evolution of humanity into the solar ecosystem. And, that's important, because we do support migration of the kind I'm talking about, but not just any kind of migration, it needs to be inclusive, ethical and sustainable; that's a tall order. However, it gives us two different ways of looking at these flights. One is, benefit back on because of the shift of awareness and consciousness and greater environmental awareness. But then, perhaps an even bigger benefit to earth, which would be, people moving off the plane, and, going to this much larger ecosystem which is out there. Now, I just want to close that particular part by saying, the value system, that we take with us has got to better than the one we have right now. And I know many people, are not enthusiastic about space flight because they assume that we're going to take the same values off the planet that we've had on the planet. And, that is a big issue that, we really have to resolve. And, one other thing I would say is, we do need to do good studies of the environmental impact of these commercial flights because I know, again, people are concerned about that. And, I do believe that space flight is a good way to create environmentalists, but we don't want to do it at the expense at the environment. And that's a high priority, I think, is to work on that.

>> Maria Varmazis: That makes a lot of sense to me, yeah. One thought that I often have when I think about humanity moving past earth is, when, again, when I read your book, but also when I, look at photos taken by astronauts who are on the moon, around the moon, back at earth, I'm not made of that kind of stuff, I'm not that brave. I admittedly feel fear when I see earth that far away against the darkness of space. Again, I would never make a good astronaut. And I wonder about that feeling of, that I have, that visceral feeling of, I need to be tethered to earth. Like the idea of leaving earth and going to, you know it becoming the pale blue dot, is scary to me. And I say this as a space enthusiast, it is actually scary to me. And, I wonder, I'm going to be so curious to hear the Artemis astronauts as they go around the moon and eventually one day land, what their thoughts are looking back at earth.

>> Frank White: Probably, there's more fear involved in space flight than we hear about, I think. And I know in talking to the professional astronauts, they don't usually use that term, but they do talk about, well, you've got to be aware of what you're doing. And you've got to be aware that you're sitting on top of an explosion [chuckles].

>> Maria Varmazis: Yes [laughing].

>> Frank White: You know? Jean-François Clervoy told me, you write notes to your family or make videos. And they are kept until you're either safely in orbit or not. I don't know if the commercial astronauts are doing that, but, in my interview with Sharon Hagel, she did tell me about, the day before she flew. She didn't have fear so much as just a recognition, that she was, taking a risk. That the next day she would be taking a risk, and that the planet she was on was beautiful. And that, she definitely didn't want it to be the last time she saw the earth. And so, I believe that, everyone, whether they're a commercial astronaut or a professional astronaut, has to have some awareness of, what they're doing. And, I think you are brave because you admitted that you're afraid. And --

>> Maria Varmazis: Well, thank you.

[ Laughing ]

>> Frank White: -- and what we're looking at is the future of our planet, the future of our species. Not everybody needs to go, to be part of this. And in fact, as you well know Maria, I mean, you've got two astronauts standing on the moon there are hundreds of thousands of people on earth making it possible for them. And, every mission there are many, many people doing that. I mean, even just, I was struck. I did a lot of traveling recently, and I was observing what was around me. And I thought about that, there were a lot of people who don't get much recognition who made it possible for me to go from the Boston area across the country to California. And it was baggage handlers, it was, it was, people who cleaned the plane. It was people who, checked us in. And of course the pilots and the flight attendants. And I thought about how miraculous it really was that we were doing something that we are used to, we're accustomed to. And, I do believe, eventually, that space flight will be like that. And yet, I will tell you this along those lines, on one of my trips, the pilot said, "You may have noticed that it got quiet in the cabin, that's because one of our engines isn't working, okay? We're going to have to land in Cleveland."

[ Laughing ]

>> Maria Varmazis : And I'm sure he sounded very calm.

[ Laughing ]

>> Frank White: He was calm.

>> Maria Varmazis: Yeah.

>> Frank White: Nobody panicked. It was pretty clear that they had it under control. We landed in Cleveland, there was a fire truck there waiting for us. And, it is somewhat miraculous that for the most part that doesn't happen, because people take care of the engines, and, it's similar. Even today I've been to two launches, to space shuttle launches, and, you know, a lot of people cry at a launch.

>> Maria Varmazis: Yeah. I can imagine, yeah.

>> Frank White: And I think it's because, We realize what human beings can accomplish when we work together instead of against one another. And, as you point out, we've kind of lost the miraculous feeling, of airline flight. And going back to something I said at the very beginning, My first idea of what the overview effect would be like was that it would be normal. It would be typical, a person living on the moon would look up and there's the earth in the sky, and, they would be astonished if it were not there. We would be astonished if we looked into the sky and the moon wasn't there. And talk about fear, we'd be pretty worried about that. However, [chuckles] we' we're not there yet with space flight, but I'll be okay, you know, when we get there. And then, we will go further out and the further out we go, the more our consciousness will change, we will probably become more aware of our place in the solar system. And then, eventually more aware of our place in the universe. And all of these changes in consciousness, are indications of who we are, where we are in the universe, and what we have to offer. And, I think that there are many, many benefits to space exploration, but, the impact on consciousness, of ourselves, really needs more attention.

>> Maria Varmazis: When we talk about this shift of humanity becoming, a space-fearing species, I know that's a, we were talking long periods of time. In the short term, and when we're talking about the cognitive shift, what can those of us who are space enthusiasts, do to share the effects of "the overview effect" with, everyone else on terra firma? What can I do to sort of be an evangelist for this?

>> Frank White: Well, we do have some organizations that you're probably well aware of and I always recommend people get involved. You know, the Human Space Program is pretty much an all-volunteer group and we always welcome people to get involved. I'm on the advisory council of Space for Humanity. And again, we didn't say much about it, but when you get selected you have to agree to come back and do something in alignment with the United Nations 17, Sustainable Development Goals. I would also say another, aspect of it is, Space Renaissance International, led by Adriana Autino, is leading a coalition of groups, to, convince the United Nations to make space an 18th goal. We're arguing that, without space migration and space science and space development, the other goals are going to be more difficult to achieve. We haven't even talked about the Analog astronaut movement where, you know, people are going into habitats and environments where they simulate being off the planet for, a week, six weeks, six months or longer. Now you could get involved in that without leaving.

[ Laughing ]

You know, while we're talking about it, I would say one last thing, is virtual reality, that's an area you could get involved in or any of your listeners. Virtual reality is a way of creating "the overview effect" experience without leaving, and without the cost, and, other, implications of sending people into, or on a suborbital hub [phonetic]. And, yeah, and then, don't forget, now this might be less scary, there are also several companies, using stratospheric balloons to take people higher. Space Perspective, World View and so on. And, so there are going to be a lot of ways to be involved, and you don't have to go to the moon. And, you don't have to risk your life, to do it. the other thing I did want to mention just to, you know, case closed on these sub-orbital flights, Dylan Taylor, is my publisher, friend, benefactor, and, I interviewed Dylan before and after his sub-orbital flight. And he, in the post-flight interview, which is a few hours after he came back, he said, I'm paraphrasing. He said, 'This discussion, of can you experience "the overview effect" on a sub-orbital flight, I'm here to tell you 100%, yes.' So, I think we're engaged in a great, exciting experiment in social change. And, you know, probably the most important thing, and you could help with this because you have a podcast is to, communicate to the general public, the benefits to Planet Earth of what we're talking about. And it's not all rocket science, and it's not, all, aerospace companies and the Defense Department, and the particular entities that usually associate with space. It's this social movement that's really aimed at improving life on earth. And, that's the real message of "the overview effect."

[ Music ]

>> Alice Carruth: That's it for T-minus Deep Space for July 1, 2023. We'd love to know what you think of this podcase. You can email us at space@n2k.com, or submit the survey in the show notes. Your feedback ensures we deliver the information that keeps you a step ahead in the rapidly changing space industry. This episode was mixed by Elliot Peltsman and Trey Hester, with original music and sign design by Elliot Peltsman [phonetic]. Our Executive Producer's Brandon Karpf, our Intelligence Officer is Eric Tillman, and our host is Maria Varmazis, and I'm Alice Carruth. Thank you for listening.

[ Music ]

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