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By Frank White
Faith implies belief, and to the secular world, belief implies a blind loyalty to something without credible evidence. However, if faith is considered more broadly, it can play a valuable role. For societies to survive, they must have faith in the future, a commodity that has recently been in short supply. When citizens no longer believe that the future will be better than the past, they may lose their motivation to face the challenges and internal tensions that could eventually lead to social disintegration. Faith in the future has been a kind of secular form of religion for the past century or more, but that faith has eroded as science and technology—touted as the engines of progress—have proven to be double-edged swords that can bring both good and evil.
With this decline of hope for the future, many societies need a new paradigm to thrive in a world that is increasingly connected. Fortunately, that new paradigm, which involves a broader perspective on our home planet, could soon become available on a much wider scale.
“The Overview Effect” is a phrase that describes the experiences of astronauts and cosmonauts when they look back at the Earth and out into the cosmos, and that very effect could be the key to thinking beyond borders and limits that have previously seemed immutable. While the astronauts’ experiences have often been regarded as “spiritual,” a more accurate description is that many of them had a cognitive shift in awareness with a new understanding of humanity and our place in the universe.
Rather than identifying with one or two places on the Earth, many astronauts looking at the planet from a distance identified with the whole system. They realized that “we are all in this together,” and that there is a "oneness" to the planet that is obscured when we see it from the surface. Not only did they see the Earth from space but they also saw it in space. This led to the realization that this planet is a small part of a much larger system. As more people come to understand this insight, or have the same experience, we might see an even greater interest in global cooperation on issues such as climate change and arms control. We have not yet reached the “tipping point” where the shift in perspective becomes generalized, but we are approaching it.
The Overview Effect points to a new kind of faith that is neither religious nor a blind belief. As the advent of nuclear weapons has clarified, we need to forge a higher level of planetary unity. Without it, we are in danger of destroying ourselves. The view of the Earth from space shows us that unity is in fact already there, but we merely need to see it, feel it, and act on it.It is like Gautama Buddha saying that everyone is a Buddha, and that all you have to do is awaken to your true nature. The Overview Effect is the beginning of that awakening for our society as a whole.
The Overview Effect has already fueled one movement that supports the survival of humanity and our home planet: environmental awareness. Most astronauts feel a renewed sense of commitment to ecological issues after gazing at the Earth from a distance. Many of them commented, for example, on the thin layer of atmosphere protecting us from the harsh environment of the cosmos.
As shuttle astronaut Joe Allen said of the pictures of the Earth taken by the Apollo missions:
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.
Some of the early space travelers noted that a “technological Overview Effect” already exists, which is created by satellites ringing the Earth that provide us with an instrument for globalization through instant communications. Whatever happens on the planet is quickly known throughout the entire system. While few of today’s commentators have touched on this, major societal changes wrought through social media originated in satellites in outer space that are therefore linked with this technological Overview Effect. In that sense, the Overview Effect clearly has already had a dramatic impact on the politics of the planet.
Some astronauts also returned from their space missions with the sense that our planet and species exist for a purpose. In the words of Apollo 17 astronaut Eugene Cernan, the last person to walk on the moon:
If only everyone could relate to the beauty and the purposefulness of it … how our star moves through time and space with such logic and purpose. It wouldn’t bring a utopia to this planet … but it might make a difference.
Other spacefarers have been struck by the dichotomy between the beauty of the Earth as seen from orbit and the challenges of life that so many of its inhabitants are facing on its surface. Astronaut Ron Garan describes his experience of an extended spacewalk outside the International Space Station:
It was very moving to see the beauty of the planet we’ve been given. But as I looked down at this indescribably beautiful fragile oasis, this island that has been given to us and has protected all life from the harshness of space, I couldn’t help thinking of the inequity that exists. … The stark contrast between the beauty of our planet and the unfortunate realities of life for many of its inhabitants reaffirmed the belief I share with so many. Each and every one of us on this planet has the responsibility to leave it a little better than we found it.
As a result, Garan founded “Fragile Oasis”, which is committed to channeling his “orbital perspective” into projects dedicated to improving life on Earth. Some 65 projects listed on the Fragile Oasis website range from efforts to provide safe drinking water in Honduras to solar cooking capabilities for women in Darfur.
More than one astronaut has suggested that a “summit conference in space” would be the fastest way to directly change the world by the Overview Effect. In the words of Senator Bill Nelson (D-FL), who flew on the shuttle in 1986:
If the superpower leaders could be given the opportunity to see the Earth from the perspective from which I saw it … they might realize that we’re all in this with a common denominator. It would have a positive effect on their future decisions concerning war and peace.
While security issues alone bar serious consideration of a summit conference in orbit for the time being, influential citizens will soon begin to take suborbital hops on commercial spacecrafts, like those that are built and tested by Sir Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic. We will soon be evaluating the Overview Effect experiences of thousands of people rather than the 500 plus who have taken trips into space since 1961. And using the perceptions of early astronauts as an indicator, many of these “new astronauts” are likely to experience the shift felt by their predecessors. Some of them will, in turn, search for innovative ways to improve life on Earth.
Initial flights are pegged at $200,000 on Virgin Galactic, with a promise from Branson to lower the costs for future “space tourists.” More than 400 people have already signed up, and we can assume that they will have the ability to influence policy on a wide range of issues. Branson alone, who has announced to take the first space trip, certainly possesses the wherewithal to act on any insights he might gain from it.
If other latter-day astronauts have powerful experiences of the Overview Effect similar to the ones described, many of them will also be able to fund efforts that affect policy out of their own resources.
Space tourism could therefore have a transformational impact worldwide, and we might enter a new era in which a renewed faith in the future takes its rightful place alongside more traditional forms of belief.
Frank White is the author of The Overview Effect: Space Exploration and Human Evolution and co-author of Think About Space and March of the Millennia with Isaac Asimov. For his work on the “Overview Effect,” which describes to experience looking at the Earth from the orbit or the moon, he interviewed 22 astronauts.
[Photo courtesy of demokles59]