|Despite his best intentions, it quickly becomes obvious Mission Specialist Swenson failed to grasp the true meaning of “selling the space program.”|
Remember The Honeymooners? Jacky Gleason’s character Ralph Kramden would brandish a fist at Audrey Meadows’ Alice Kramden when they argued, and threaten her with his trademark line: “To the Moon, Alice!”
I suspect a lot of people felt this way about the last President of the United States, but I’m actually thinking of the leaders of today.
When I say that we should send the President into orbit, actually I have something more constructive than Ralph Kramden had in mind.
If I had my way, I would force (yes … not ask) the leaders of every major world power to spend a week in the International Space Station, and spend at least four hours a day alone, with nothing but the panorama of the Earth for company.
I will assert that there is a very good likelihood these individuals would come home changed forever, for the betterment of the human species.
Yes, I am being a little playful here, but except for the compulsory part, this was a suggestion actually floated by author Frank White in his book The Overview Effect: Space Exploration and Human Evolution. 1 This book captures and explains a psychological phenomenon which has been observed to occur in many space travelers, a profound change in mindset that redefines the experiencer’s relationship to the Earth, to Life, and to the Universe.
The Effect in Action
I was first exposed to this concept through some reflections written by Apollo 9 Lunar Module Pilot Russel Luis (“Rusty”) Schweickart, which I first heard in a inspirational video tape in the mid 1980s. I later rediscovered these lines in a stunning collection of space photography and space traveler commentary called The Home Planet, edited by Kevin W. Kelly. 2
And then you look back on the time you were outside and on those few moments that you could take, because a camera malfunctioned, to think about what was happening. And you recall staring out there at the spectacle that went before your eyes, because now you’re no longer inside something with a window, looking out at a picture. You’re really out there, going 17,000 miles per hour, ripping through space in a vacuum. And there’s not a sound. There’s a silence the depth of which you’ve never experienced before, and that silence contrasts so markedly with the scenery you’re seeing and with the speed at which you are rushing.
And you think about what you’re experiencing and why. Do you deserve this — this fantastic experience? Have you earned this in some way? Are you separated out to be touched by God, to have some special experience that others cannot have?
And you know the answer is no. You know very well at that moment, and it comes to you so powerfully, that you’re the sensing element for man. You look down and see the surface of that globe, and you are up here as the sensing element, that point out on the end — and that’s a humbling feeling. It’s a feeling that says you have responsibility. It’s not for yourself. The eye that doesn’t see doesn’t do justice to the body. And somehow you recognize that you’re a piece of this total life. And you’re out there on that forefront and you have to bring it back somehow. And that tells you something about your relationship with this thing that we call life.
So that’s a change. That’s something new. And when you come back, there’s a difference in that world now. There’s a difference in that relationship between you and that planet and all those other forms of life on that planet, because you’ve had that kind of experience. It’s a difference, and it’s so precious.
Schweickart, of course, is not the only one who has been changed by his experiences.
In 1997 I had the privilege of meeting Dr. Edgar Mitchell, Apollo 14 Lunar Module Pilot, while he was promoting his book The Way of the Explorer. 3 During the trans-Earth coast back from the Moon, with most of the work of the flight accomplished, Mitchell found time to reflect, and in the midst of this had a profound epiphany, a recognition of the interconnectedness of all things. In his book, he captures this experience in concise, economical prose:
Billions of years ago the molecules of my body, of Stu’s [Command Module Pilot Stuart A. Roosa] and Alan’s [Mission Commander Alan B. Shepard] bodies, of this spacecraft, of the world I had come from and was now returning to, were manufactured in the furnace of an ancient generation of stars like those surrounding us. This suddenly meant something. It was now poignant, personal. Our presence here, outside the domain of the home planet, was not rooted in an accident of nature or the capricious political whim of a technological civilization. It was rather an extension of the same universal process that evolved our molecules. And what I felt was an extraordinary personal connectedness with it. I experienced what has been described as an ecstasy of unity. I not only saw the connectedness, I felt it and experienced it sentiently. I was overwhelmed with the sensation of of physically and mentally extending out into the cosmos. The restraints and boundaries of flesh and bone fell away. I realized that this was a biological response of my brain attempting to reorganize and give meaning to information about the wonderful and awesome processes that I was privileged to view from this vantage point. Although I am now more capable of articulating what I felt then, words somehow always fall short. I am convinced that it always had been and always will be on ineffable experience.
Gambling with the Effect
Numerous space travelers have had similar experiences so significantly impactful that their personal paradigms, as were those of the two space travelers above, were irrevocably changed, expanded to embrace a vastly larger or more holistic perception of reality than before.
The Overview Effect catalogs the effect of this phenomenon on the experiences of 30 space travelers. Naturally, not all experiences are as personally profound as described by these two examples, and the effect appears to find different ways to express itself. (Apollo 15 astronaut James B. Irwin, while walking on the Moon, experienced a profound reinforcement of his religious beliefs and only a few years later created the High Flight Foundation, a non-profit ministry devoted to sharing his message of faith.)
And, unfortunately, it appears that not all space travelers have an experience of this kind.
However, the entire world has been touched by the Overview Effect. The original images of the Earth from deep space, notably the ones shot by Apollo 8 in December of 1968 and Apollo 10 in May of 1969, changed our world view, most probably helped stimulate ecological awareness, and even made their way to Earth Day’s Earth flag.
It would almost seem that (admittedly, in not all cases) people plus space flight equals better people.
So let me submit to to you: if a President of the United States or the leader of any major power made the journey and came back changed due to this Overview Effect — and could still function in the political arena despite it — wouldn’t you do everything practical to support him or her?
Wouldn’t it be worth it to give it a shot?
1. The Overview Effect: Space Exploration and Human Evolution, Frank White, American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics, Inc., 1998
2. The Home Planet, Kevin W. Kelly, Addison-Wesley Publishing Company, 1988
3. The Way of the Explorer: An Apollo Astronaut’s Journey Through the Material and Mystical Worlds, Dr. Edgar Mitchell with Dwight Williams, G. P. Putnam and Sons, 1996
Copyright © 2007-2009, by Daniel Brenton. All Rights Reserved.
This article is revised from a previous version (no longer available) which was published on this site, Nov. 22, 2007.