Frank White is a space philosopher; and in a way to me, he is *the* space philosopher. Not only has he put his thoughts out there, he has created community to encourage conversation and help us all join in. Thus, it was a pleasure to chat with him for the show. This Interview took place in October 2022 and is still relevant.
You can purchase Frank’s books on Amazon or learn more about the Human Space Program through their website: https://www.humanspaceprogram.org/
[00:00:00] Jacob Sager: you are listening to space Midrash. The space age has arrived in our culture. Our civilization is unprepared. [00:00:20] I believe in an artful and ethical humanity. Thriving amongst the cosmos. The narrative collapse has arrived. It is in effect. It can lead established cultures to irrelevancy. Are we can lead each other into the future. We want to become.[00:00:40] But we will only become those people. If we tell the story that inspires us to become those people. Space Midrash is on a mission to explore the intersection of Jewish civilization in the space age, and to spread awareness of the overview effect through the impending narrative collapse. [00:01:00] I believe in an artful humanity. Ethically thriving amongst the cosmos. In order to get there, we need to tell the story of us becoming those people.
You are listening to the space Midrash podcast. I’m your host, Jacob Sager. This episode is an interview I [00:01:20] had with Frank White in October, 2022. Having had the pleasure of listening to a lot of Frank’s interviews over the years and reading many of his books, I was determined to make sure I came to the session with some unique questions. Frank is a great person to interview. He is as brilliant as he is humble. He dives deep into topics yet speaks in a [00:01:40] way that is easy to understand.
And he is extremely generous with his time and his presence. During our conversation, Frank recounted his personal space history, including where he was when the first moon landing happened. And the two shuttle launches that he witnessed. And then I asked him some direct and nuanced questions about the overview effect [00:02:00] and the human space program. But one idea stood out as particularly important that he gave to me in response to one of my questions, which is to make the overview effect, something that we can truly understand and share with others: we have to take it and make it our own and then share it with the world and whatever way [00:02:20] we can. This interview ran about an hour long, and I hope it will be the first of many interviews with Frank. And certainly the first of many interviews, I will have the pleasure of producing here on space, mid rash.
You are listening to space, may trash. I’m Jacob Sager. And this episode is entitled the Frank [00:02:40] White overview of the overview effect
You are listening to the Space Midrash podcast. My name is Jacob Sager. We are probing the intersection of Jewish civilization in the Space Age, and today we’re exploring the overview effect with Frank White who I’ve spoken about [00:03:00] many times on previous episodes. And if I have one goal with this podcast, that is to spread more awareness of the overview effect and bring that concept and languaging into people’s lives right now.
So I’m really grateful to have you here, Frank, and to be talking to you today.
[00:03:18] Frank White: Thank you, Jacob. It’s my [00:03:20] pleasure to be here. And I think we, we really have the same goal, which is to share this remarkable experience for the benefit of all humanity and for planet Earth, which is what I think it is all about.
[00:03:37] Jacob Sager: h how many books about space have you written [00:03:40] and how many other books have you written?
[00:03:41] Frank White: I would say that five or six of my books are very directly about space exploration and I believe the total number of books is up to 15. At this point, I am happily losing Count . I’ve [00:04:00] gone from being an author in search of a publisher to having a fantastic publisher, multiverse Media, or a Multiverse Publishing, and I do write about other topics, and some of my books are co-authored.
So I’ve had some [00:04:20] remarkably brilliant co-authors on some of the books, but I would say about a third. Of the books are really directly about space exploration, and three of them make up the Overview Effect Trilogy, I would say those are the heart of the collection, [00:04:40] the overview effect space, exploration in Human Evolution as the first one.
The second one is the overview. Excuse me, the is the new Camelot, the quest for the overview effect. And the third is the Cosma Hypothesis, [00:05:00] implications of the overview effect. They do go together and each one of them has its own distinct focus.
[00:05:08] Jacob Sager: Which one of those space Books was your favorite to write?
[00:05:12] Frank White: I really always have to go back to the overview effects, space exploration and human evolution. , it’s [00:05:20] now in its fourth edition, so I’ve dealt with it four times, but the first edition was revelatory Jacob in the sense that I’ve always said, I don’t know what I think until I write it.
And I also find writing surprises me. That is [00:05:40] to say, trying to put into words the research that I’ve done is always revealing something new to me. And certainly the overview effect did that because I had in [00:06:00] the first edition, 16 astronaut interviews and I was left on my own to explain what all of this meant.
I already had the title because I had that through my own experience of. flying cross country, looking down at the earth [00:06:20] and having an epiphany, which we can talk about as well. However, one of the astronauts said to me, if I had a dollar for every journalist who said they were going to explain our experience, I’d be a wealthy person.
And it was hard [00:06:40] to explain what was clearly there in those interviews, but not so clear the first time. And then for the fourth edition, we got up to 40 interviews and again, trying to make sense of it [00:07:00] because it always changes with more interviews. I found it just as interesting the fourth time as the first
So th that has to be the favorite. Although the other two books in the trilogy were [00:07:20] revelatory in their own way. But I guess the overview affect space exploration and human evolution is the senior child the first child. Do you know what it’s like with your first kid? It’s always special.
[00:07:35] Jacob Sager: What was what’s a recent read or tv or movie you’ve been [00:07:40] consuming or thinking on?
[00:07:40] Frank White: Couple of things. I’m reading limits and Beyond, which is an update on the limits to growth work that was done. back in the seventies, and a lot of people don’t know about it. But in the 1970s a series of computer [00:08:00] simulations were commissioned by a group called The Club of Rome.
And this was looking at various variables on earth that really pointed to a collapse of our civilization if we continued [00:08:20] down the path we were on in the seventies. And this led to a famous book called Limits to Growth. And it was important because it really inspired Gerard K O’Neill to begin thinking about [00:08:40] expanding into the solar ecosystem and human communities and outer space.
O’Neill became a mentor of mine. and Limits to Growth also Great, gave really great impetus to the environmental movement. And so I’m reading [00:09:00] this book Limits and Beyond, which is a series of essays by people reflecting on the 50 years since Limits to Growth was published. That’s one book I’m reading.
I am also reading Shelby Foot’s three volume series on the American [00:09:20] Civil War. It, each volume is about 900 pages long, and believe it or not, it’s a hard book to put down. It’s brilliantly written and very insightful as far as television goes or movies. I’m very [00:09:40] taken with the series for all mankind.
which is an alternative history of the space race in which the Soviet Union gets to the moon first. And it is really well done. It’s very hard to do alternate history and make it [00:10:00] believable, but they do, I suspect a lot of people are watching in and they don’t realize that isn’t what happened. So I’m watching that.
I am also very interested in House of the Dragon, which is the prequel to the, [00:10:20] remarkable series based on the books by our Mar Martin. And again, that was something like, I don’t know how many thousands of pages those books were. Again, really interesting characters and imagination.
And I also write [00:10:40] fiction and I love writing fiction, and I like fictional ways of understanding the world.
[00:10:47] Jacob Sager: What’s your education
[00:10:50] Frank White: history? A as far as prior to going to college, it was pretty eclectic. My dad was called back into the Army when the Korean War broke out, [00:11:00] so we lived all over the place, including Germany.
And I went to quite a lot of army schools, which was instructive because I had a much broader a much broader experience of humanity. That way than if I’d stayed in Mississippi where I was [00:11:20] born. And then I came back to Mississippi for high school and I graduated from a very small high school in Canton, Mississippi.
From there I went to Harvard for four years. What a great experience that was. It was fantastic. And then I was fortunate enough to be awarded a Rhode scholarship, [00:11:40] and I went to Oxford for three years. So I had seven years of really the best education I could have asked for. And again, I love teaching.
I love learning. And I’m very grateful for everything I’ve been taught. And [00:12:00] most of it finds its way into my writing actually.
[00:12:03] Jacob Sager: So you finished up in Oxford in 1969? Yeah, of course.
[00:12:10] Frank White: Okay.
[00:12:11] Jacob Sager: So you, what year did you finish up at Oxford?
[00:12:17] Frank White: I finished in 1969 [00:12:20] and returned to the United States at that time. And of course it was quite a time to be in England. It was, the sixties were just an amazing period. It was the best of times and the worst of times. And as as you well know, , the [00:12:40] 1968 was earth rise, the Apollo eight mission to the moon.
1969 was the landing. And it was one of those times, not unlike now, where remarkable and beautiful and great things are happening in outer space and terrible and frightening [00:13:00] things were happening on earth. So there was a real cognitive dissonance and it was it was remarkably challenged, challenging to be a human being at that time.
[00:13:11] Jacob Sager: where were you when the moon landing first took place in 1969?
[00:13:16] Frank White: Yeah, so I was I was in a little flat [00:13:20] 46 Lockford Road in Oxford, and that was the center for a group of Americans who were engaged in opposing. American intervention in Vietnam. And I was sitting in the kitchen with my colleagues watching Neil Armstrong hop onto the moon on a [00:13:40] black and white TV set.
And it was an amazing moment. I will have to say. However, I was more affected by Apollo eight and, , I saw that in London. I was staying at the home [00:14:00] of some American friends there, and we were watching as they went to the moon, and as at a moment they turned the camera around and showed us a grainy picture of the whole Earth.
That was shocking. I’d never seen it. Nobody had [00:14:20] really ever. Seen it before in that way. And then later we had the famous Christmas Eve Earth rise broadcasts from Apollo eight, and that was the end of a horrible year. We’d had two significant assassinations, Martin Luther King, [00:14:40] Bobby Kennedy, and the war in Vietnam was going terribly for everybody, going terribly for the Americans.
But it was terrible for the Vietnamese as well. And I was in London in a pretty depressed mood. I don’t mean clinically, but just [00:15:00] situationally because I was trying to make a, the world a better place, and it just seemed really hard. , but when I saw Earth Rise, I, something happened to me that, it’s hard to explain.
I just became hopeful again, and I will always remember that just [00:15:20] awe. I would say it, it took me a long time. I didn’t know what was happening at the time, but I think I know now. I think it had the same impact on a lot of people. I,
[00:15:35] Jacob Sager: I, I assume you’ve seen the Time Hanks series from the Earth to the [00:15:40] moon.
And the yes, the episode about the Earth rise has always struck a chord with my heart cuz I, yeah I was a real big fan of learning of Martin Luther King and read like all the very thick histories and biographies let the trumpet ring or let the trumpet sound was one of them. And so I was very familiar with that history and I had [00:16:00] forgotten it.
And I had actually only recently seen that series from that series was from around 2000. And seeing that episode I caught wind of how dark it thought that, that end of that year. And how inspiring even to, secular Americans and things like that message and images and the reading of the passage from [00:16:20] Genesis.
, and the shots from that the special effect shots of getting to see the Apollo eight and that series going around having that broadcast was very cool. Have you ever attended a lock rocket launch?
[00:16:33] Frank White: I have. I’ve been at two shuttle launches, Jacob, and [00:16:40] they were really remarkable. I believe the first one was APO, was not Apollo, but the sixth or eighth launch of the shuttle. It was the first night launch in any event. And I took my son, who was very small at the time, and we drove [00:17:00] out onto the causeway, near the river there, and they had a mic, they had a broadcast amplifier set up there.
And , it’s a nature preserve. Cape Canaveral, Cape Kennedy and they were saying, parents, keep an eye on your children. It’s mating [00:17:20] season for the alligators. And I was thinking, oh, I gotta keep an eye on Josh . I can’t lose my child here. And then they had these lightning storms and they were saying, get in your car.
Get in your car, you’ll be safe in your car. And my son and I [00:17:40] were both into King Arthur and I’d always been into King Arthur, and I can’t recall if I was reading to him or telling him King Arthur’s stories. But finally he fell asleep and then suddenly a loud speaker came on and said we have a go for launch.
There’s a break in the weather. [00:18:00] And I was trying to wake Josh up and he was not wanting to wake up. And I said, you’re not coming all the way from Boston to this launch. not seeing it. So he woke up, he grabbed the camera, which was around my neck, , and started [00:18:20] snapping pictures. It was really awe-inspiring.
And then I was reflecting that before we got out of the traffic jam, leaving the astronauts would be an outer space and we were in a traffic jam. And that just got to me . And then I was invited [00:18:40] for the flight. After Challenger, I was invited and given v i p access, I was closer and I was a heck of a lot more nervous because we just didn’t know.
We had started to believe space flight was [00:19:00] routine until the challenger accident. and then we realized it wasn’t routine and I didn’t know what I was gonna see, was I going to see a launch or an accident. But I met two people, two women who had some connection to the space center, [00:19:20] and I don’t recall quite what it was, but I recorded on a little tape recorder, the launch.
And what I remember is that the challenger happened at Max Q. They went to maximum dynamic pressure on the [00:19:40] spacecraft. Then they said, throttle up, and they said, Roger, go to throttle up. And then the explosion happened. And again, we had the loudspeaker and we hit Max Q and they went to throttle up. And then I, one of the women I was with said, , they’re past it.[00:20:00]
And that’s on my recording. And I just remember that how relieved we were. If you, have you been to a launch? I would hope not yet,
[00:20:11] Jacob Sager: but I hope to bring my children like, like you did at that first launch there. But I have not been to a
[00:20:16] Frank White: launch yet. There’s something about it, people often [00:20:20] cry.
There’s of, there’s something about it. Because I think what you feel is what humanity can do When we are inspired, when we work together, space flight is hard and it’s scary. And yet we have hundreds of people who work together to put the astronauts [00:20:40] in orbit. And if only we could be like that more often.
And Artemis is the current effort to go to the moon. . And even though it’s been criticized for being laid and being over budget and all of those things, still thousands of people show [00:21:00] up. They want to see it. And it is part of the mystique and the almost religious feeling I think that people get when they see a launch.
I would go again in a minute if I had the opportunity. And I’ve got friends who’ve been going to some of the [00:21:20] recent launches and they’re just as inspired as I was years and years ago.
[00:21:26] Jacob Sager: When you when you say there’s something religious about it I’m reminded of just photographs of the the.
Spaceship Building Complex right out there at Cape Canaveral and rolling out the Saturn five and rolling out the shuttle and the, [00:21:40] and specifically a lot of the shots at night with the lights and just how stark that building is. And there’s kind of nothing around it, or it’s very, it’s just the landscape and the roads that it has this kind of cathedral look to it Yeah.
In those photographs. Yeah. That just popped in my head.
[00:21:54] Frank White: No I wrote a about a 65 page paper after that launch that Josh and [00:22:00] I attended, and I called it Pilgrims at a modern Shrine. So I felt just what you’re talking about, and I’ve heard that during the Soviet era in Russia, that the space program took on a religious.
It was like a [00:22:20] religious proxy because true religion was suppressed and restricted, and people began to turn their attention to the astronauts. And if you think about it I teach at Kepler Space Institute, and one of my students whose name is [00:22:40] Aziz, has talked a lot about the idea that we now have humans going to the heavens.
And this is something that religious literature talks about, but here we have it happening in modern times. [00:23:00] And there are many ways in which I think it’s a spiritual and religious experience. And part of it is just, it’s ineffable. The astronauts say, I can’t put it in words. And of course, that’s a spiritual type of statement.
[00:23:17] Jacob Sager: In the introduction of your book you mentioned [00:23:20] your father was an aerial photographer and you were talking about how you moved around as he was called back into the Army. I have a few questions about this. I actually used to collect aerial photography books when I was in college, make coffee table picture books.
I love them. I look through them with my kids and we try to just depending on how high the pictures are up, try to make sense of his what, [00:23:40] whatever we can in the images. Yeah. Did you ever fly with him? Do you have photographs of his, did his perspective from his work affect his perspective on larger and deeper things?
[00:23:53] Frank White: He actually didn’t fly. He was on the ground all the time, interpreting the photographs. [00:24:00] And in World War ii, he was in the Pacific with General MacArthur. , and that’s exactly what he did. He derived intelligence from the aerial photography as they planned the next invasion. Then when we came back to the states between World War II and Korea, he [00:24:20] had an engineering company where they used aerial photography for various purposes.
And then when we came back, after he got out of the army, he did a lot of work with aerial photography in terms of [00:24:40] land management. For example, I worked with him one summer to make a property map of Madison County in Mississippi where we lived, and he made that map for aerial photographs. And I was always aware that he was into aerial photography [00:25:00] and it had been his profession.
But actually it didn’t occur to me till many years later when I started working on the overview effect. I realized, oh I think that’s where this came from to some extent, that my dad was always looking at the earth from a distance [00:25:20] as much as you could in those days. I don’t know that it affected him.
He was a kind, gentle, caring person and I don’t know how much that came from his work, and I don’t know how much just came from who he was, but I [00:25:40] suspect that the overview that he got from your orial photography probably played into his personality.
[00:25:47] Jacob Sager: What overview effects if any, do you think existed in earlier ages of aviation before, we started having astronauts?
[00:25:57] Frank White: First of all I heard that [00:26:00] there were some experiences of what we would call the overview effect when people started going up in the Eiffel Tower. When it was built in Paris, people would come back and say, oh my God, I just, I, I never thought Paris looked like that.
I don’t know much about it. Somebody just [00:26:20] told me that in an interview once. But it sounds plausible. I’ve done some research into Aeronauts and definitely balloon flight has some precursor experiences, and you can read some of the aeronaut. descriptions and definitely they were picking [00:26:40] up some of what we would call the overview effect.
My own experience that led to the idea of the overview effect was on a plane, looking out the window, thinking about living in a space community permanently. And that’s when I had the epiphany of always having an [00:27:00] overview of the planet. I was interviewed by a journalist who was writing a art, an article for a, an in-flight magazine, and she told me she had documented several cases where people in an [00:27:20] airplane had a breakthrough idea.
And I don’t recall all of them, but she gave me five or six. And so there is something. About gaining some distance from the planet that it’s on a spectrum [00:27:40] to a suborbital hop or an orbital experience, or even going to the moon. And it’s pretty clear that yes, there have been these precursor experiences.
They may not be the full overview effect, but there’s certainly [00:28:00] indicators of it and hints. Someone must have been thinking when they’d got into a balloon and they started seeing the earth from a distance, they must have started thinking, if only I could get higher. If only I could get further it.
It must be the case that they knew it would be profound.
[00:28:19] Jacob Sager: You [00:28:20] also said in your introduction to the recent edition that you recently read Sapiens by Yuval Noah No, Noah Harari, which I happen to have actually read right around the time I first read the Overview Effect. Did anything from that, cuz that’s just such a brilliant book and such a brought like really expanded my [00:28:40] perspective on human history as it’s intended to do.
Anything from that change or enhance your position on narrative collapse or the overview of factor or the evolution of civilization across space and time?
[00:28:51] Frank White: I was struck, first of all, by the parallel nature of his experience to mine, because he went to [00:29:00] Oxford as well. And he found himself not really relating very well to the academic world.
He didn’t feel inspired by it. and he started meditating and that really began a journey for him. And eventually what he decided to do was to go through the [00:29:20] academic process, become a professor, and then he knew he’d be free to be interdisciplinary, to bring in many different disciplines into his work.
I had a slightly different experience at Oxford. I wanted to do a doctorate there, and I found [00:29:40] that every idea I had for a doctorate, when I would present it to a don or a faculty member, they would narrow it down to something I didn’t want to do . And so my approach was to do a master’s degree and [00:30:00] to use the time I had.
the extra time I had to explore my more interdisciplinary, broader issues. And it was not quite the same as his, but I found that the result was the same, which is I’m very [00:30:20] interdisciplinary in my thinking. I like to go into other fields and bring them together. And I really liked the overview of history that resulted from his willingness to ignore academic boundaries.
And and the result was [00:30:40] that he asks the kind of questions I’m asking. So he just in the very title Sapiens, he really wants to understand how did homo sapiens become so successful? And he talks about, History is an unfolding of our [00:31:00] ability to tell stories and to share stories and to pass them on. He’s fascinated with why there’s only one species, homo sapiens, and he carries that forward in his other book, ADEs.
And if you think about it, if you take [00:31:20] another animal and he points out that we are animals, we may be spiritual animals, but we’re animals in some way he points out that every other animal grouping, there are many species within a genus, I suppose is the term. But homo sapiens has emerged [00:31:40] triumphant, o over other other species of homo and I still find that remarkable too.
And there was, the one example of his thinking that I found appealing, he talked about humans thinking that they cultivated wheat, [00:32:00] but in a funny way, wheat cultivated humans. . And by getting in addicted to weed and bread and all the products, you really had to change how human civilization worked.
And we had to go from being hunter gatherers to being farmers and living in [00:32:20] cities and so on. So these kinds of insights, his kind of evolutionary historical approach, I found quite remarkable and challenging and also comforting because, It’s the way I like to think about history as [00:32:40] well.
[00:32:40] Jacob Sager: I really learned a lot about the perspective of the human as an animal from that book as well. And one thing that stood out for me that I’ve been thinking recently was I know there’s a lot of science to talk about it but it was the first exposure to me is how much more intelligent animals on planet earth are in their own communities [00:33:00] and things like of that nature.
And even playing tricks on each other and lying or things of that nature. Which I thought was interesting. So let’s get into the overview effects specifically. Okay. Which I’ve been really interested in this last year and since your fourth edition came out on the 35th anniversary or just the year [00:33:20] before maybe.
. It’s been really exciting and a lot of people are talking about it. So what does the over overview effect mean as you’ve originally defined it and explored it? Yeah.
[00:33:29] Frank White: Originally I had it defined in a way that’s different from the way it’s understood today. Originally, I was imagining [00:33:40] people who lived permanently in outer space.
They would be living in the kind of community that Gerard O’Neill talked about, which would be a free-standing community built from extraterrestrial material, i e the astral her, the asteroids, for example, [00:34:00] and the earth would always be in the sky, and they would always just know that it was a whole system in which everything is interrelated and interconnected.
and that was what I started with. And my training at Harvard and Oxford was as a [00:34:20] social scientist. So I knew I had a hypothesis and I knew I needed data. And yet there were no such people then and there aren’t now. So I had this, what I thought was a brilliant idea of interviewing astronauts cuz I figured they’re [00:34:40] the closest people to space people.
And that’s when I started talking to astronauts and interviewing them. And that changed the hypothesis because I saw it as an ordinary everyday thing, [00:35:00] the overview effect. But when I talked to astronauts, they confirmed a lot of what I was saying. Like the Earth is an interconnected whole system. But it was shocking to them.
It was a surprise to them. They were born on the surface. They planned to return to [00:35:20] the surface. And so it was a shift in awareness, a shift in identity, a shift in consciousness, and therefore it was extraordinary. And so the overview effect, now we [00:35:40] do define it as a cognitive shift in identity, awareness, consciousness, but it’s also an emotional experience.
And this is being brought out more and more by the astronauts. I now have four astronauts documented as telling me they [00:36:00] cried when they saw the earth for the first time. And I have a feeling. Most of them cried. Not all of them, but most of them. Why? It de, it depends on the astronaut, but it is emotional.
It’s not just an [00:36:20] intellectual thing. And so today, I also call it a theory because it is a hypothesis now that bringing the overview effect down to earth and expanding this awareness through [00:36:40] what we are doing today through virtual reality, through commercial space flight. The more people I believe who have astronaut awareness, the more we’ll be able to look at the problems we have on planet Earth and find collaborative ways to [00:37:00] deal with them.
We. I hope we’ll find it more and more difficult to have wars because look at the war between Ukraine and Russia. It’s about borders and boundaries, right? The astronauts [00:37:20] say those are in your head, they’re in your mind. They don’t exist. When you’re in orbit, you can’t see them. And this doesn’t mean we have to get rid of countries.
I don’t mean that. It’s just that we have to understand their inventions. We invented them and [00:37:40] we can use them positively. For example, I think it’s great that Massachusetts and Texas are totally different states. I don’t want them to be the same , and yet, Massachusetts and Texas did go to war once.
let’s be clear about that. But it’s highly unlikely [00:38:00] we will go to war again. And the borders between our states are permeable. They’re permeable. So this is what we’re talking about with the overview effect today. And one last thing I want to say is that a friend of mine, whom I had not seen in quite a [00:38:20] few years, but I used to work with, came into my life and started to learn about the overview effect.
And he said, I think the overview effect is a boundary object, which is an odd term because it’s all about no borders, no boundaries, . And I said, what the heck is [00:38:40] a boundary object? And he talked about a researcher in the eighties who coined this term and it’s an idea. that is coherent at the center and yet plastic at the periphery.
And the notion is with something like the [00:39:00] overview effect, people who don’t have consensus and don’t agree on everything can still work together on projects. And I’ve seen that happen. I’ve seen many people coming together around the overview effect. And they may be a very different political persuasions.
They may [00:39:20] not agree on everything at all. They may be an artist, they may be a scientist, they may have very different training, and yet they can work together. So I would say the overview effect is an experience, it’s a theory it’s a boundary object, and [00:39:40] it’s something that’s evolving and changing every day.
[00:39:42] Jacob Sager: Your first edition was before the Challenger Disaster. As you’ve come to interview 40 astronauts over the last 35 years, how has ha have you seen the challenger disaster in the Columbia disaster have an effect [00:40:00] on the astronaut’s personal quest for the overview effect? And did that change how you interviewed astronauts?
You also said that you got to have a special visit and presence at the first launch following the Challenger disaster. Yeah,
[00:40:16] Frank White: yeah. I should say actually that I was [00:40:20] finishing up the overview effect when the Challenger happened, and it really affected how I wrote the book for sure. And it definitely had an impact on the book itself.
And it also, led to my interest in creating a philosophy of space exploration. Something we can come back to [00:40:40] if you want to, but one of the things that was remarkable in my most recent trip to Johnson Space Center, I went back there and interviewed 10 astronauts in a couple of days. Three of them were on the International Space Station, and seven I [00:41:00] interviewed in NASA studio.
Two of the astronauts I interviewed were coming of age when Challenger happened, and in both cases I said, did that give you PAs? Did that make you think maybe you didn’t want to be an astronaut? And both of them said no. It made me more [00:41:20] determined than ever because I saw how important it is for humans to explore space.
and I saw the entire country come together and mourn the loss of the astronauts. And so in a counterintuitive way, [00:41:40] the cha I don’t have anything similar about Columbia, but in a counterintuitive way, the Challenger accident, or at least two astronauts encourage them to pursue their dream. And it does change how I interview [00:42:00] astronauts because one of the comments I make whenever I talk about astronauts is they have risked their lives to go have this experience and bring it back to us.
They are heroic. And that’s true of [00:42:20] the new astronauts who are going on Blue Origin and SpaceX. , there’s no guarantee that they’re gonna be okay. And they are risking their lives and they know that. And it really is the hero’s journey as Joseph Campbell would talk about, where you really step outside of ordinary life.[00:42:40]
You do something not everybody can do or wants to do. And you go and you get this sacred knowledge and you bring it back. And another aspect of the story, I think, is that just about every astronaut I’ve talked to has said [00:43:00] we feel an obligation to share what we experienced with everyone. Because we didn’t go just for an individual experience, we went for humanity.
So they’re heroes, even today. And we are gonna keep pushing the envelope, and if we keep going and [00:43:20] we will lose others who will be willing to take that risk for that really amazing reward. So I guess I interview astronauts with greater reverence than ever , if that’s a good way to put it.
[00:43:36] Jacob Sager: . So you say that once the challenger disaster [00:43:40] took place, it that you were in the middle of working on the overview effect or towards the end of working on the first edition, the overview effect and it pushed you to build a larger space philosophy Yeah. Is what you said. Yeah. So I wanna talk about, definitely talk about that a lot.
Here Switch, of switch away from the overview effect, and talk about the [00:44:00] larger framework and philosophy you’ve built there. One, one question I wanna ask you as the futurist in this you talked about how eventually people on Mars would declare their own declaration of independence from Earth.
So I, which I thought was brilliant, very interesting. And it really, like I said I had read that is in the overview effect, that idea I read [00:44:20] sapien shortly thereafter, and it really made me think of all the everything in that book. So I’m curious, which shifts do you imagine taking place in the evolution of culture or human life cycle or the personal pursuit for meaning as a result of not being earthbound anymore?
[00:44:38] Frank White: I think they’re [00:44:40] probably unpredictable, but of course humans, one thing humans like to do is predict. , if you think about it, listen to a sports talk show and they’re always trying to predict who’s gonna win the next game. And that’s what the [00:45:00] analysis is all about is prediction predicting who is gonna win the next election.
We are prediction machines, , so we will try to predict, and I am trying to predict what is going to happen as humanity leaves planet earth. So even though it’s [00:45:20] probably going to be different from that, I would say first of all, that we need to understand clearly that, that there’s going to be a very big difference in how culture evolves from people living on the moon or [00:45:40] living in an O’Neill community.
Which will still be relatively close to planet Earth and you can see planet Earth still, right? That’s going to be different from Mars. People have asked me will there be an overview effect on Mars? Not exactly, cuz [00:46:00] the overview effect is about seeing the earth against the backdrop of the cosmos and still being able to discern oceans and continents and familiar features on Mars.
The earth is gonna be more like a point of light, [00:46:20] and I call that the Copernican perspective, which is realizing Copernicus was right and we live in a heliocentric solar system, and so I do believe we have to separate. The Moon and Mars, for example, [00:46:40] in terms of what culture and what government and what society will be like.
Another aspect of, let’s say living on Mars is the distance. If you are living on the moon, you can actually imagine coming back to the Earth. [00:47:00] There’ll probably be transportation bringing you back pretty easily. Unless we have some advanced propulsion that we don’t have today, Mars is not gonna be a place that’s easy to return from.
And there is also a time lapse with [00:47:20] communication between the Earth and Mars that’s distinctive and significant. And so communication between the two will be hard. , and I really believe that it will become obvious to the people living on Mars pretty quickly that they’re not gonna survive if [00:47:40] they’re controlled from Earth.
The people on earth are not gonna know what conditions they’re in. They’re not going to be able to enforce any laws they think should be enacted on Mars. And I believe it will be similar to when people left England and came to North [00:48:00] America for many years. For many years they thought of themselves as citizens or subjects of the king, and they were happily English or French or whatever, but they eventually just felt like they were being exploited [00:48:20] and controlled by people who didn’t understand their situation.
So I do believe that Mars Martians will declare independence, and I think we should allow them to go there with the expectation that they will be independent rather than trying to control [00:48:40] them. It’s gonna be much better for everyone. There’s one other aspect that’s really important to consider, which is the impact of microgravity and l lower gravity.
We know that from zero gravity studies on the i s and the shuttle, [00:49:00] that every organ of the body is affected by changes in gravity. The brain is an organ. It has to be the case that people will think differently if they’re living in a reduced gravity environment, certainly in a zero gravity [00:49:20] environment.
and we do not know what that’s gonna be like over the long term. We also imagine children being born in these environments and we don’t really have a good understanding of how they will think differently, but we can be pretty sure they [00:49:40] will. I believe people will eventually identify more with the cosmos and less with a planet including the Earth.
I will say one other thing though, Jacob, that occurred to me that is counterintuitive and I’m almost gonna contradict myself but [00:50:00] I think it was maybe Walt Whitman who said, do I contradict myself? If so let it be. I’d lived in Germany on a military base for three years when my dad was in the army.
there were 25,000 Americans there, families were there. My [00:50:20] dad as an engineer built a baseball field, a football field, a tea, a movie a theater, and a grocery store. . It was a little America. We were surrounded by Germany, and we were surrounded by people who didn’t like us very much because we were [00:50:40] occupying power.
The kids who were there had no choice. We had to be there, and many of the kids resented it, and they had this idealized view of what we called the states. [00:51:00] Everything was great in the States. Everybody wanted to get back to the states. You couldn’t just go back, the Army wasn’t gonna send you back on a ship to visit your grandpa.
You were stuck. And so I believe there may be [00:51:20] this other this other cultural shift on Mars or on a distant space community where the Earth will take on this mystical quality. And and it may well be that if you’ve been on Mars a long time, you cannot go back because you’ve adapted to Martian [00:51:40] gravity.
And you just would, you would be unable to function in normal earth gravity. So there, there might be factions of people who love the earth and long to go back, and then others who want to break away and say no we’ve gotta be independent. . It’s good [00:52:00] fodder for science fiction
[00:52:03] Jacob Sager: Is something I’m trying to understand here. So if people on Mars won’t have an overview effect because they’re not seeing the earth, but they are the inheritors of a society that has established an overview system to get to that right [00:52:20] level of being there, won’t they still have a cognition or a spiritual understanding or philosophical understanding of an overview effect of planet Earth or of a solar system?
[00:52:32] Frank White: They will, and of course they’ll experience the overview effect on their way to Mars. They will see the earth from a distance. Some of [00:52:40] them may spend time in low Earth orbit before they head out to Mars. So yes, they will inherit this consciousness and. . One of the aspects of this conversation that’s important for people to realize is the overview effect is just the beginning.
, space flight, space [00:53:00] travel, large scale space migration is a way of changing human consciousness. So in the book I talked about the overview effect, the Copernican perspective and the universal insight, and these are shifts in identity from [00:53:20] realizing we are part of a whole system called Earth.
We’re part of a whole system called the solar system. We’re part of a whole system called the Galaxy, the universe. We will continuously see ourselves as parts of greater and greater holes. And at each [00:53:40] stage We’ll incorporate that earlier consciousness. You’re right about that.
[00:53:44] Jacob Sager: So what is the human space program abstractly and what is the Human space program? Incorporated? Nonprofit.
[00:53:53] Frank White: That’s a very good way to ask it, Jacob. They are different. So when I was [00:54:00] finishing the first edition of the Overview Effect, it became clear to me from talking to astronauts that exploring the universe was really much too big a project for one country, or one space program, or even one company.
And it appeared. To be the case, that it would be a [00:54:20] wonderful thing if we could have a project called the Human Space Program, a central project that would capture the best aspects of all of humanity and the best energies of humanity. And it [00:54:40] would be a human space program. And the goal would be to explore the universe and learn more and have our consciousness change over time.
And so if you read the last chapter of the book, it talks about a thousand year project [00:55:00] to explore the universe. And it lays out, I think, 20 different sub-projects and I think that I waited and waited till around 20, I got 16 or so for someone else to actually make the human space program happen.[00:55:20]
And then I decided I guess I’m gonna have to do it. And I envisioned it as again, an interdisciplinary effort where we would bring people from all these different disciplines to think about the big issues that would face us as we [00:55:40] moved out into the solar ecosystem. And I started out trying to make it happen at Harvard because I knew that Harvard had the resources to tackle everything from religion to government, to economics and so on.
And ultimately, I got [00:56:00] to the point where Harvard was very close to making it an inter faculty initiative, but we never quite got there. And then a rainy Poro, who is executive director of the Krista Mce Center at Framingham State University [00:56:20] said, let’s make it an academy. I think I came up with the academy in space, but she said, let’s make it all of the universities in on, in the United States and the world.
And we, we called it the Academy in Space Initiative. And then I [00:56:40] presented at my reunion at Harvard in 2016, this whole idea and TED Field, one of my classmates said, I want to help you, but let’s not re restrict it to universities and colleges. Let’s bring in business and everybody gets involved. So the [00:57:00] Human Space Program became a nonprofit incorporated in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, and now we have 5 0 1 status.
So we’re officially a charity under Internal Revenue Service. So we can receive funds from people and they can get a tax deduction. [00:57:20] And even though the original idea was really for a thousand years of effort to explore the universe we’ve now focused on conscious migration into the solar ecosystem.
And we constantly point out the earth is part of the [00:57:40] solar ecosystem. We’re not leaving the earth. We want it to improve life on earth. And as I think, we want it to be sustainable, ethical, and inclusive. , and that is the Human Space Program Incorporated, which is now an organization. [00:58:00] And my dream is that eventually it will reside somewhere off of Planet Earth and it will in fact be a thousand year project.
That’s why I’m taking special supplements for Life Extension . , I don’t, I I have [00:58:20] explored that and I think a lot of people who are interested in life extension are interested because they think it’s gonna be really interesting to be alive for a long time. , but , I don’t expect to last until the Human Space program reaches its final Destin.
[00:58:36] Jacob Sager: How can established cultural [00:58:40] communities and institutions lean into the space age, given the kind of narrative collapse that comes about from the overview effect and all the knowledge we’re
[00:58:54] Frank White: spreading? That’s a great . That’s a great question. I think there is an answer to it [00:59:00] because the overview effect has become a movement.
There is an overview movement, and the goal is to bring the overview effect down to earth. What we mean is to bring this awareness into earthbound society and for people who have no interest in leaving planet Earth but do want to improve life on earth, [00:59:20] they can take the information we’ve gotten from the astronauts.
They can make it their own, as the fourth edition of the book has every interview I did in it, and people can read those interviews, draw their own conclusions, and [00:59:40] I know people who are applying it to psychotherapy. I know people who are interested in how might we use it in organizations?
How might we use it in religious settings? How can it change the existing systems for the better? [01:00:00] My own view is it will be disruptive. It’s not like you can just integrate the overview effect without some discomfort, but I do believe it will be for the good of everyone. that this idea of [01:00:20] having an overview, a bigger picture will benefit government, economics spirituality, psychotherapy, you name it.
I would just challenge people to read the book. Or you can go watch a NASA series called Down To Earth, [01:00:40] which I participated in creating, Hey, we got nominated for an Emmy. Did I tell you? Congratulations. Yeah. So there, there’s quite a few short videos, but there’s one half hour documentary called The Astronauts Perspective that was nominated for an [01:01:00] Emmy.
It did not win, but it was nominated, which is pretty good in itself. But I would just challenge people to make the overview effect their own in their family life, in their personal life. Incidentally, you ask about all the books I’d written. One of my books is called, my Life [01:01:20] Is Seen From Orbit and I’ve tried to apply the overview effect to my own life in a memoir, and it covers the first six orbits of my life, or first six years.
And, Jacob, I found I got a lot of insight from doing it that way. [01:01:40] So people can, it’s a tool people can use in organizations or families or government or in whatever way they choose. It’s a tool. All right.
[01:01:54] Jacob Sager: I’m definitely using it as a tool and and making it my own and good bringing it into discussion in a [01:02:00] lot of different ways. Thank you so much for your time today. Frank I, this was a lovely discussion. I learned so much and it was just a pleasure to connect with you,
[01:02:09] Frank White: Jacob. I’m trying to calm a puppy here. I know you had other questions, and if you want to do another interview, I’m game okay. I’d be happy [01:02:20] to, and I appreciate your taking the time to delve into this topic, and I appreciate the preparation you did, because it makes a huge difference. It really does.
[01:02:32] Jacob Sager: I’m glad. So yeah, let’s let’s be in touch about that, about making another interview for the rest of these questions.[01:02:40] This was great. Thank you so much.
This episode of space, Midrash was directed by me, Jacob Sager right here on planet earth and produced by brand new colors, LLC.