Jan
18

Video of Harvard Premier of “Overview” Documentary

  1. Harvard Event and Astronaut Panel Now on YouTube

In my last post I linked to the “Overview” documentary that was premiered at Harvard on December 7th, 2012. As of today it has been viewed 360k times. If you haven’t seen it yet, please do so. It is the best produced media piece on the Overview Effect to date.

On January 11th,2013, HarvardExtension posted on YouTube the video of the live streamed event hosted by the Harvard University Division of Continuing Education. The video includes the panel discussion moderated by Frank White, my Overview Institute co-founder and author of The Overview Effect: Space Exploration and Human Evolution.

The panel members included two of the astronauts in the documentary, Ron Garan and Jeff Hoffman and a special appearance by Douglas Trumbull, Overview Institute founding member and legendary film director and visual effects supervisor (2001: A Space Odyssey, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Blade Runner, Tree of Life, etc.).

And for an added sense of presence, my good friend Doc Searls was there, and as usual, shot a boatload of great photos.

The event was a huge success, packing the hall with nearly 250 Harvard students, faculty and guests. The audience then asked questions of the panelists and the reception afterwards attracted a huge crowd and went on for hours afterwards.

Together, these two videos represent the first in-depth presentations of the Overview Effect to get outside the space community and into the general public. Please help us to spread the word by sending these links through your own network.

 

 

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Dec
10

Harvard Premiere of Overview Documentary

On Friday, December 7th, Harvard hosted the release of the first professionally produced documentary on the Overview Effect.  You can view it here https://vimeo.com/55073825.  The event was produced by the Harvard School of Education and the Extension School with support from other departments.  Frank White, author of The Overview Effect: Space Exploration and Human Evolution and my co-founder of the Overview Institute moderated a panel that included astronauts Ron Garan and Jeff Hoffman along with Overview Institute member and Oscar winning visual effects guru and space visualization icon, Douglas Trumbull.

There was a reception for students and faculty, the event and an evening reception for all the principals.  Afterwards I went with Doug Trumbull to his studio for my first tour and viewing of his revolutionary new high frame/rate projection and virtual set technology with which we will create the finest Overview Effect simulations and media to date.  Doug’s new systems will also allow for the creation of visual effects movies at a fraction of the cost and time of present production.  More on this in a later post.

Here is the link to the Harvard event announcement http://alumni.extension.harvard.edu/icb/icb.do.  The event was streamed live but the site for that is down while they create a permanent archive site.  Will post that when ready.

I’ll post more on this landmark event in the viralization of the Overview Effect soon.

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Aug
02

Sally Ride: Beauty of the Earth is Only Half of It

Even as we honor her life and achievements, Sally Ride is still breaking new ground.  In the July issue of Air and Space Magazine, apparently written shortly before her passing, she gave one of the most detailed and evocative single statements of the experience of the Overview Effect I have read. I’ve paralleled her descriptions to other astronaut accounts of the Overview Effect in an article on the Overview Institute Site.  Here’s the gist.

“Everyone I’ve met has a glittering, if vague, mental image of space travel. And naturally enough, people want to hear about it from an astronaut: “How did it feel?” “What did it look like?” “Were you scared?” Sometimes, the questions come from reporters, their pens poised and their recorders silently sucking in the words; sometimes, it’s wide-eyed, 10-year-old girls who want answers. I find a way to answer all of them, but it’s not easy…”

To those of us vitally interested in the nature and impact of space travel on the traveler and the world which their reports influence, her words, “a glittering, if vague, mental image of space travel,” have special significance…Even before describing what she saw, she clearly wanted to disabuse her readers that her description would allow them to accurately imagine her experience:

“Imagine trying to describe an airplane ride to someone who has never flown. An articulate traveler could describe the sights but would find it much harder to explain the difference in perspective provided by the new view from a greater distance, along with the feelings, impressions, and insights that go with that new perspective. And the difference is enormous…” Again she tries to distinguish them from the mental image they would naturally conjure:

“And while it’s natural to try to liken space flight to familiar experiences, it can’t be brought “down to Earth.” The environment is different; the perspective is different. Part of the fascination with space travel is the element of the unknown—the conviction that it’s different from Earthbound” experiences.

“It is.”

Read the whole article here

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Jun
27

In Space Companies, “No One Can Hear You Yawn”

Amazing NewSpace Events Get Brief Media and a “Yawn”

The recent delivery of cargo to the International Space Station by Elon Musk’s Space X was, in the eyes of the space community, a Game Changer.  As the first Post-Shuttle U.S. delivery to the ISS, and by a private space company, it was also covered by major media.

Within a week however, this landmark event, which a number of space leaders saw as the beginning of a Second Space Age, was submerged in the usual mix of media.

In my last post on the Planetary Resources  announcement of their plan to Mine the Asteroids, I also noted the tepid and the even shorter-lived response from the mainstream media.

A few days later Will Oremus at Slate.com had this to say:

“How did the tech world respond? It yawned, rolled over, and returned to its collective dream about the next hot social-media startup. My message to the tech world: Wake up! This is outer space we’re talking about! This is awesome!”

A Lack of “Space Awareness”

The lack of enthusiasm for these two amazing events vividly demonstrates the hugely diminished space-awareness of our present culture, an awareness that began to fade immediately following the abrupt end of the Apollo Program.

Lacking Apollo Era space awareness by the public, Congress and Wall Street, the explosive growth of a new Space Age that space enthusiasts envision may not happen nearly as rapidly as they imagine.  Because, apparently, in space companies, “no one can hear you yawn.”

The Overview Institute was created to research and focus attention on the World View shifting impact of space awareness reported by the majority of astronauts.  Pre Space Age observers such as astronomer Fred Hoyle and even Socrates have predicted that such awareness would engender such a World View shift. There are many such predictions of the positive value of adopting an “Overview” perspective of the Earth, from ancient to modern times.

The sudden and rapid World View shifts attributable to the astronaut’s firsthand accounts and visual records indicates that space travel and its socially transmitted Overview Effect is an especially powerful driver for shifting World Views.  As both astronauts and eminent cultural observers have predicted, the Overview Effect of space will soon become one of the dominant forces in shaping our world in the coming decade and beyond.

 For the full story, see the post on my blog on the Overview Institute site.

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May
23

The Third Case for Manned Space Flight – Part Two: Exploration vs. Entrepreneurialism

The Third Case for Manned Space Flight – Part One

In my previous entry, I laid out what I called the Third Case for Manned Space Travel.  Taking my cue from the recent congressional debates over NASA funding, I juxtaposed the major space advocacy arguments, from science and exploration to space resource acquisition on one side with the major critics’ case resting mainly on a cost/benefit argument on the other.

Budget critics cite current market downturns and deficits, and argue that we simply can’t afford a robust space program at this time.  They favor greater reliance on cheaper robotic missions; which have actually delivered, dollar for dollar, more science and exploration.

Those critics more focused on the humanitarian and environmental challenges also see the effort and resources devoted to manned space programs as misdirected.  They say that the energy would be better used to solve major world challenges such as Climate Change, International Conflict, Resource Availability and Allocation, the Energy Crisis and many others

I proposed a Third Case for manned space travel.  It’s the documented, positive shifts in World View that a heightened awareness of the reality of space induced in both the astronauts and world culture.  This is widely known in the space community as the Overview Effect.

Proponents of various solutions to world problems often say that a major change in World View on the part of both the public and leadership, from parochial interests to a more Global (or even Planetary) focus, is essential to successfully addressing World-spanning issues.  Overview Effect-induced shifts in World View actually support many of the proposed solutions to the very world challenges that critics see as being slighted by space efforts.

 The Overview Effect of Human Space Travel

This psycho/social impact, long rumored in the space community, was first documented in dozens of verbatim astronaut interviews, and finally given a name in the iconic book The Overview Effect: Space Exploration and Human Evolution, by space philosopher, Frank White. 

In his initial publication in 1987 and the second edition in 1998, Frank began the process of documenting the astronauts’ personal sensory experience of space and the shifting of their internal World View that accompanied it.  Since that first publication the term “Overview Effect” has become the most common term in the space community when referring to the impact of space awareness on the space traveler and the world.

 The Third Case – Part Two

There is, however, a second way to frame the Third Case.  From the beginning of the Space Age, space exploration has been dominated by a few National space programs.  Today however, we are witnessing the sudden emergence of a robust Commercial “NewSpace” Industry.

As I write this post, one of these New Space companies, Space Exploration Technologies, or “Space X” is, over the next few days, scheduled to make the first demonstration delivery of cargo to the International Space Station by a private company.  While, like all test flights it is subject to delay and even failure of the test, the die is cast.  Commercial space travel is at hand.

Later this year another company, Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic, will begin powered flights of their revolutionary new Rocket Plane, with the intention of beginning, as early as next year, regular sub-orbital flight for paying passengers.  Already, more than 500 private citizens have paid either full ticket price or deposits for their tickets. And there are at least five other companies building fleets of sub-orbital spaceships.

Also, half a dozen companies, including Space X, are building Orbital space vehiclesThe New Space industry predicts that tens of thousands of private citizens will travel into space over the next decade, ultimately to privately built, rentable space stations, or “Space Hotels”.  Fully functional, small test units of such stations have actually been in orbit for several years.

And even these incredible plans, already in motion, pale before the most advanced New Space goals in development.  Over the next two decades, this rapidly evolving new industry plans to extract huge amounts of vitally needed resources from space by mining the Moon and asteroids, building Space Solar Power arrays that will beam back major amounts of power to the world power grid and providing near-space support for NASA that will allow it to redirect its limited budget to deep space exploration. In short, they are planning to make space the Next Big Thing in the technology business economy.

The economic argument of NewSpace vs. Science and Exploration is the second way to frame the Third Case for Human Space Travel.  The New Space Industry is proposing that a space-based economy, extending entrepreneurial activity into space, is a stronger and more consistent motive for advancing manned space travel than the sole pursuit of science and exploration.

Once again, the unstated issue that is inherently supportive of, and indeed critical to, each of these arguments for human space travel is the Overview EffectWithout a compelling sense of the reality of space and the relationship of Earth to its space environment as well as its planetary nature, neither of these positions answers the critics’ case against aggressive manned space travel funding.  This holds true whether the funds are public or private.

 The Overview Effect and The Business Case for the New Space Industry

While the New Space industry is claiming that they can provide NASA with a lower cost (and less politically vulnerable) alternative for cargo and astronaut transportation to orbit, as well as infrastructure in space, the business case for these companies doesn’t close if only NASA ISS supply flights are the market, as only 6 to 8 a year are likely to be needed in the near term.

The orbital space companies are depending on commercial space stations and other entrepreneurial space projects creating a space economy to close their business model.  Even the satellite launch market, with many current suppliers, requires high volume to achieve competitive pricing.  For much of the New Space industry a rapidly growing Space Tourism market is seen as the “killer app” that will demonstrate and support the new field.

The business-based push-back is that there is not a large enough observable “Space Tourism” market for a robust multi-company industryThus, the industry is often characterized by both the public and the business community as a group of space enthusiast “hobbyists” indulging their founders’ and clients’ “Science Fiction” fantasies. 

Close examination of reader feedback on New Space articles show public opinion as well (from those few even aware of this field) to be more than 50% negative.  The usual criticisms range from cynicism (“They are either trying to soak NASA or the uber-rich”) to the previously mentioned misdirection of attention and resources.

And while Virgin has signed some 500 clients so far, their predictions of 50,000 customers in the first decade will require a vastly ramped up demand from more of the upper middle class.  With the current cynical and dismissive public sentiment, what will shift the public space travel image in so short a time?  And lacking such a shift in public perception, many question whether the New Space industry could avoid implosion or at least years of delay in the event of a couple of tragic failures. 

Here again, the missing element is the Overview Effect. The key elements of the space experience are a heightened sense of the reality of both space itself and the nature of life on a Planet in space.  This essential realization, born of direct personal perception, leads to the many individual shifts in perception and understanding of both Earth-based issues and space travel.  (For selected astronaut quotes along these lines, see my earlier posts, here and here.)

 The Overview Effect Will Change our World View

A great deal of academic research in various areas has demonstrated how the internal image and model of the world-as-we-know-it, our World view, influences our perspectives, beliefs an even our actions.  Thus, knowledge and personal experiences that change that World View lead to changes in the behavior and priorities toward which we put our energy and resources.

It should not be difficult to see then, that connecting the Overview Effect induced shift in World view to the Global and Planetary perspective, vital to “World Change” efforts, makes greater access to space an asset to all those working on these challenges.

At the same time, greater awareness of the reality of space supports all space related projects whether NASA or New Space.  The iconic science fiction writer Robert Heinlein famously said:

“Once you get to earth orbit, you’re halfway to anywhere in the solar system.”

 While Heinlein was speaking of the Physics of space travel, explaining that getting off the Earth took more energy than traveling through space, I submit that the same is true of the psychological or “World View” element of space travel.

 “Get a person’s “World View” far enough off the Earth that it’s reality as a Planet in an infinite Universe is visibly obvious, and you are half way to convincing them of the reality of any plausible space project you want to propose.”

Currently it would seem that the majority of space advocates and even NASA and New Space leaders either assume that the reality of space is already wide spread in the population or that it will follow naturally once their plans are significantly in motion.

For this reason, they fail to realize that much of the resistance they currently experience (outside the existing group of space enthusiasts) from investors, Congress and the general public, is the cognitive and media “Heavy Lifting” required to shift our World View to that Near-Earth Overview Effect.

 The Overview Effect as the “Third Case”

If the psychological reality of this fact were more widely understood within the space community, and common efforts were made to bring the “meme” of the Overview Effect to the general public through the “viralization” of Overview Effect language, concepts and visualization strategies and technologies, “space-awareness” would return to our World View.

A powerful return (and hopefully a radical increase) of the Overview Effect to our World View (one that was just beginning to take hold at the end of the Apollo Program) will simultaneously accelerate both the New Space Age and the perspective needed to drive solutions to multiple current world challenges and problems. This is “The Third Case” for manned space travel.

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May
13

MSM Coverage of Planetary Resources Shows Lack of Space Awareness

Visionary Space Announcement Disappears from the Media

Last month, I watched the press conference that announced a new company, Planetary Resources, and their plan to mine the asteroids, redefining “natural resources”.  MINE THE ASTROIDS!  The audaciousness of the vision is almost beyond belief.  And apparently that’s exactly how it appeared to the media and the small segment of the public their meager coverage reached.

For this announcement, surely one of the most ambitious and visionary space projects since Kennedy’s goal of landing on the Moon, was met with mild admiration, much skepticism and derision, and essentially dropped from the media-sphere within a week.  

I submit that this is one of the clearest examples of the near total lack any REAL “Space Awareness” in our culture today.

What Is “Space Awareness”?

Wait now! I haven’t forgotten all those beautiful star fields and colorful nebula snapped by the Hubble Telescope, or the breathtaking new night-side views of the Earth lit up like fields of glowing jewels; or even the collective sense of loss, brought on by the end of the Shuttle Era.

I’m talking about THE REAL AWARENESS OF SPACE, the visceral SENSE OF WHERE WE ARE  and even WHAT WE ARE; a thin smear of biology on a tiny ball of rock; a pebble in a sky filled with an infinite number of stars, harboring an infinite number of worlds.

In particular, I’m also talking about THE SHIFT IN ONE’S INTERNAL WORLD VIEW that accompanies such awareness; an experience that just over five hundred people in history have had personally, the astronauts and their few space traveler associates and guests.

As I have said repeatedly in this blog, this is the Overview EffectAnd it is precisely what is missing in our current World View.  Its lack makes every space proposal, no matter how much it might benefit us; seem like some distant, currently unreachable Science Fiction world.

Most of the public thinks that space awareness, the Overview Effect, is about Space; about turning your eyes to the stars, about looking “Out There”.  However, that’s only part of it.  Others, especially many of those who have heard the term “Overview” Effect, think that it is seeing the Earth From Space.  That too is only a part.

The reality of the Overview Effect is seeing the Earth IN Space; seeing the reality of our position in the larger Universe, the larger REALITY, and the “REALLY Big Picture”.  For the Reality of our Position is that we are already IN space.  And once that fact becomes real, viscerally real, then many other previously known facts also start to become real as well.

Some Implications of the Overview Effect

When you look into space from outside the atmosphere; you VISERALLY REALIZE that we are one tiny planet in an unimaginably vast universe of stars and planets.  It suddenly becomes real to you that we ARE a tiny smear of life on a tiny fragile ball; separated only by a paper thin atmosphere from a Universe of powerful forces we presently know little about.  

And when you look down from space and see the Earth, particularly on the night side, where you see those fields of glowing jewel-like lights spread over the whole world, lights that weren’t there just a century ago, and you realize that we are growing and consuming the Earth’s resources at an ever increasing pace, resources that themselves are finite.

And then you realize, not only do few down there get this…really GET It…but they are fighting and killing each other over these things, this tiny ball of land, these finite and dwindling resources and the political, religious and intellectual doctrines and dogmas that separate us and perpetuate the blind mutiny of the crew of this little Space Ship Earth.

And all the while, over our heads, closer than the nearest neighboring city, is unimagined space and resources and insights into the very problems we now face.  A whole new World View with new possibilities and ways of looking at both our challenges and our opportunities.

And you wonder what would happen if everyone could see this, or at least our political, social and opinion leaders, and they brought this vision back, and found new and powerful ways to communicate what is now so obvious and important.  If this ould happen, wouldn’t everyone get just a glimpse of a larger reality, of new choices and new possibilities?

It’s not about space per se, nor is it about science or exploration or political or military supremacy.  It’s about the next stage in Human Evolution, the evolution of our culture, our species.  It’s about a whole new World View.  But without at least beginning to sense that such is waiting for us “out there”, it’s just a techno-fetish, a joy-ride, a “science fiction fantasy” that we can’t afford at this time.  Not while we have “Real World” things to take care of.

Response of the Media and Public to the Announcement

While space community media outlets were briefly awash in articles about the announcement, the major media quickly relegated it to minor “page 2” mention (if that), with little comment beyond the announcement, roughly split between cautious optimism and outright skepticism.

Now while balancing pro’s and con’s may just be good journalism, reader comments were, on balance, even more negative, from lay critics asking, “are they going to strip mine the universe like they have the Earth”, to space scientists and engineers asserting that “these people just don’t understand the physics (or space or other technical issues),” glossing over the fact that the team includes ranking planetary and space scientists building on decades of research. 

And despite the fact that the company was formed by leaders of the New Space Industry that are rapidly preparing to take over near space activities for NASA, provide space travel for private citizens and land private rovers on the Moon.  And they are being advised by leading planetary scientists and headed by Chris Lewicki, the man who led the landing of the Mars rovers.  A bunch of “starry-eyed” hobbyists they are not!

Perhaps the most surprising criticisms have been that they don’t understand how bringing huge amounts of valuable resources into the earth will impact the world economy.  Really?  They are funded and advised by some of the most accomplished tech billionaires in the world, leaders of Google, Microsoft, Perot Systems and The James Cameron “franchise”?  They don’t understand the economy? Or how technological innovation impacts it?  What is this about?

The Current Disconnect Between Earth and Space

I suggest again that this is one of the best examples of the fact that our culture thinks of space as something “out there”, separate from life on earth and solely the domain of NASA scientists and astronauts.  It’s a research laboratory and a desolate place for exploration where intrepid astronauts plant flags and bring back rocks for research; sort of like Antarctica or the ocean bottom.  It extends science and technology and inspires the public and future scientists, but has little or nothing to do with daily life here on planet Earth here and now.

But that focus, dominant in the public’s mind and media ignores two major factors.  The first is the essentially unlimited resources available in space as opposed to the inherently limited supply on Earth.  This is the meaning of “Planetary Resources”. Mining asteroids that are incredibly rich in heavy metals and other valuable substances can add Trillions of dollars to the world GDP over just the next couple of decades. 

If these incredibly accomplished and visionary leaders in business, technology and space science can’t propose big ideas in space commerce today, what happened?

And by mining and transforming resources in space rather than lifting them out of Earth’s deep gravity well, all forms of space exploration, commerce and even settlement will be orders of magnitude cheaper.  

Our First Age of Space Awareness – And It’s Loss

By the Apollo Program, our culture had identified itself as living in The Space Age.  Cars had “tail fins” echoing rockets; popular media such as Star Trek and even architecture (i.e. the Seattle Space Needle) were heavily space themed.  A multitude of products were sold as “Space Age Technology”.  Hilton announced that it was planning a Hotel on the Moon and bought product placement in Stanley Kubrick’s iconic 2001: A Space OdysseyMoon vacations were widely expected by early in the 21st Century.

In short, immersed in space images, media and cultural we had a growing Space Awareness.

The Apollo Program was prematurely terminated, the central political goal of beating the Russians to the Moon now accomplished.  In its wake, and partially the cause of its termination, was a host of other, more immediate challenges.

Against the background of the messy end of the Vietnam War, Watergate, the first Oil Crisis and the sudden rise of the modern Environmental Movement which focused on the Earth (jumpstarted by the very words and pictures returned by the Astronauts) a severely underfunded NASA would never again recapture that first burst of cultural Space Awareness.

The long slow build of the Space Shuttle and the long delayed development of what became the International Space Station, punctuated tragically by the televised destruction of the Challenger and later the Columbia disasters, confirmed in the public’s mind that space travel was only for superhumanly courageous professional Astronauts, and space only an otherwise desolate science laboratory.   

Curiously, some space historians have even suggested that we shrunk back from the reality of the enormity of the universe to the “cocooned” virtual world of the computer. In any case, space rapidly faded from cultural awareness.  Perhaps it has taken us all this time, not just to perfect our technology, but to recover our courage.

Shift in Science Fiction Mirrors the Loss of Space Awareness

The simultaneous rise of the ubiquitous personal computer and the ever-expanding internet replaced space in the public’s imagined techno-future.  By the mid Eighty’s, Science fiction, ever the harbinger and driver of techno-futurism, shifted rapidly from Space to various forms of computer themed “Cyberpunk”, typified by 1999’s The Matrix and its many imitators. As futuristic computer technology infused all forms of more traditional dramas, science fiction turned to Fantasy ala Harry Potter, Twilight and various comic book heroes and themes.   

Space science fiction, with few exceptions, dropped progressively from public view, with the nadir arguably occurring in 2005, with the final appearances of the two longest running space franchises, Star Wars and Star Trek, within months of each other.

Perhaps the most peculiar thing about this timing is that it occurred in the middle of the rise of the New Space industry.  Space X, Blue Origin, Bigelow Aerospace and Virgin Galactic (jumpstarted by the X-Prize winning flight of Spaceship One, the first privately built space ship) all began work in the previous six years.  Six years after, all have demonstrated working space technologies, and within the next few years all will likely be doing business in space.

Again, “What’s going on here?”  What’s the “disconnect?” NASA and other space histories all cite the growing popularity and sophistication of space science fiction in the decades just prior to the beginning of the Moon Race, as preparing the public for the reality, do-ability and desirability of space travel and of Kennedy’s challenge of landing on the Moon.

Yet today, there is no comparable space science fiction heralding and preparing the public World View for the New Space Age, one that will make good on the broken promise of the Apollo Era and finally make space travel a real part of our world.  It’s another indication of Space having dropped from our collective World View. 

The “Sales Pitch” – Shifting Our World View

In a recent article, two leading mathematicians, David Bailey and Jonathan Borwein speculating on the cultural and technological influence of the iconic space movie 2001: A Space Odyssey and our past and current New Space eras, concluded their interesting article with this insightful comment… 

“There is clearly a public appetite for human space discovery, independent of the public’s appreciation of spin-off technologies generated from the first space age. What is missing is a sales pitch — like the arms race but ideally less grim — that made possible the Apollo program.”

It’s all about shifting our World View, and what it takes to do it.  Once we grasp this simple but subtle idea, and do what is necessary to support that shift, then the Overview Effect will indeed begin to change the world. 

It will begin to change our World View!

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Apr
24

Shifting Our World View: The Third Case For Human Space Travel

Why Do We Need Human Space Travel?

Recent comments by Newt Gingrich as well as Congressional hearings on NASA funding have reignited the old question of the need and value of manned space travel. In the hearings, the Campaign and subsequent articles, the same old arguments were brought forth by both sides.

The Two Sides of the Debate

SPACE ADVOCATES – argue for the vast scientific knowledge, the technological spin-offs and the potential game-changing economic benefits of space-based solar power, Moon and asteroid mining and even zero-gravity manufacturing and research. Also, the less measurable but resonant idea that exploration is a deep-seated human drive that will “inspire us to dream, have larger goals and produce a new generation of scientists and engineers

Elon Musk, Steven Hawking and other experts have argued the stick as well as the carrot, reminding us of all the potential civilization-devastating catastrophes, from nuclear war and pandemics to asteroids. Settlement of Mars, they say, is our best hedge against extinction.

THE CRITICS – are much more succinct. The cost of any of these benefits, even if proved doable, would be hundreds of billions, if not trillions of dollars. In a time of multiple national and world problems and economic uncertainty, the money is needed closer to home. Besides, robotic probes and telescopes return more science, are safer and cost less. They acknowledge wide public support for manned space flight but say that there will be plenty of time for “space dreams” once we solve our present problems.

The “Missing Piece” in the Debate Over Human Space Travel

There is however, a third case which has been has been in plain sight at least since the Apollo Program but which has fallen into a blind spot in this National debate. It is a case for Human Space Travel that both answers the objections of the critics and supports and transcends the arguments of the space advocates. It is a position both for those who want to create a space-faring civilization, and for those who truly want to address the myriad problems facing the Nation and World today; and one that will create common ground between the two.

The Third Case for Human Space Travel – Changing our View of the World

This third case for human space travel is the nature and effect of the experience of space itself on the “world view” of both the astronauts and the culture that shares the experience through their words and images. In the space community, it’s often called the Overview Effect.

Both Astronaut reports and scientific research support the conclusion that the Overview Effect is nothing less than an historic cognitive (brain/mind) shift in our internal model of the world.

Since the beginning of the space age, astronauts and cosmonauts have spoken of how the experience changed them. Many report heightened environmental concern and activism, shifted attitudes on international relations, resources and a variety of humanitarian issues.

And a growing number of cultural historians are beginning to assess the social impact of the space program. Perhaps the best documented examples are in environmental histories, which frequently point out that the modern environmental movement was largely jump-started in the early 70’s by the “words and pictures of the astronauts”.

British Historian Robert Poole in his history of images of Earth seen from space, “Earthrise: When Man First Saw the Earth,” literally positions this environmental Jump-start between the two most iconic Earth photos. “Earthrise”, the 1968 Apollo 8 shot of the Earth over the horizon of the Moon and “Blue Marble”, the 1972 Apollo 17 Whole Earth picture. Al Gore said that “without those pictures there would never have been an EPA, Clean Air Act, Clean Water Act, National Environmental Protection Act or Earth Day,” at least not at that early date.

The Essential Nature and Cause of the Overview Effect

By many accounts then, the primary impact of seeing first-hand the true nature of the Earth as a planet, hemispherically surrounded by billions of stars is to shift the internal “World View” of the space traveler and those to whom this shift is communicated.

In previous posts I have outlined how technological shifts like air travel or the internet change internal models of ourselves and the world. Cognitive science emphasizes how we construct our perceptions of the world from previous sensory experiences. Lacking the direct experience of space travel, we construct our internal pictures of the Earth and space from media images. Media theory explains the relative lack of information in media images vs. direct perception. Thus space travel creates a massive overload of new sensory information that creates shifts in internal World Views that normally take years of incremental exposure to new technologies.

A majority of astronauts have said that they believe nearly anyone who travels into space will have similar experiences and that the impact of mass space experience will shift the world’s perspective toward a more “Planetary” vision and sense of “Global Citizenship”. Such shifts frequently engender greater humanitarian concerns and attitudes of planetary stewardship concerning resources, conflict resolution, the environment and a host of humanitarian issues.

A Curious Disconnect

Curiously, these changes are nearly identical to the shifts in perspective and paradigm that leaders of a multitude of “world-change” efforts insist are essential to addressing world-scale issues. Yet these “world-change” leaders are often among the most vocal critics of what they perceive as the “misdirected” attention and resources going to public and private manned space flight. There is clearly a curious disconnect going on here.

Advocates for solutions to multiple world problems often cite the need for greater global awareness, vision, citizenship and action as prerequisites for grasping and appreciating the scale, interrelatedness and need for such solutions. Yet, they simultaneously minimize the value of one of the few experiences that consistently impart such perspective changes!

What Accounts for this Disconnect?

The essential problem is that these surprisingly profound shifts from space travel are nearly unknown by the public or cultural leaders despite their alignment with such an important set of Earth-bound issues. And even in the community of space experts, leaders and advocates, rumors have misidentified the essential nature of the experience and its resultant changes.

While accounts of these transformed World Views of the astronauts have circulated in the space community from the beginning of manned spaceflight, they have most frequently been identified with a few of the most exotic examples. These examples have most often fallen into two categories; either “space euphoria” or “spiritual experiences”, neither of which characterizes the mass of astronaut reported experiences.

“Space Euphoria” came from NASA psychologists who saw that the view of the Earth and space transfixed the astronauts and sometimes distracted them from mission requirements. The analogues they drew from were “Rapture of the Deep” experienced by some deep sea divers and the “Breakaway Effect” of some high performance pilots, both potentially negative.

The idea that a large number of astronauts had spiritual or metaphysical epiphanies has been a frequent rumor in the space community for years. Apollo 14’s Edgar Mitchell, arguably had one of the most profound experiences of the Overview Effect of all those who flew into space. In a Google search of the term “Overview Effect,” perhaps as many as half of the references refer to Dr. Mitchell’s experience and conflate it with the essential nature of the space experience. Many also conflate this description with various spiritual traditions or ideas.

For his part, Dr. Mitchell, a Ph.D in Astrophysics, declines to describe his own experience as “spiritual”, preferring to explain it in scientific terms derived from his own later life-long exploration of the nature of the human mind, and quantum physics stimulated by his own profound experience.

And he’s quick to admit that his own experience was unusual among the astronauts. Be he also says that most of the other astronauts that he is familiar with had some form of the Overview Effect shift in perspective and world-view.

Shifting Worldviews to Support Positive World Change

Let’s put it all together. Space flight changes the perspective of nearly every space traveler, in very positive ways, concerning the very Earth-centric issues argued by their critics as reasons against human space travel at this time. But if the historic and scientific facts of the Overview Effect on mind and society are known, then the argument is stood on its head.

The very nature of the psycho/social impact of human space travel then, argues that this is the exact right time in history for massive human space travel and expanded space awareness. Space travel very clearly changes one’s perspective and World View in specific ways that will support and energize the very issues that its critics see it as neglecting or distracting from.

What Are “World Views” and What Happens When They Change?

Despite the somewhat vague impression that the term “World View” may seem to have, there is surprising agreement across the cultural and academic landscape that our World Views are real and substantial mental frameworks that shape and define our thoughts, beliefs and even actions. Wikipedia, citing experts from multiple academic fields says that…

“A…world view …is the fundamental cognitive orientation of an individual or society encompassing the entirety of the individual or society’s knowledge and point-of-view…a framework of ideas and beliefs through which an individual, group or culture interprets the world and interacts with it…a network of presuppositions.”

Derived from the German, “Weltanschauung” [“World” and “Outlook”], it was first used as a formal philosophical term by Kant and later popularized by Hegel. It has become a central concept in various philosophic, cognitive and epistemological theories. Research in fields as diverse as geography, history, anthropology, linguistics and politics trace the influence of these elements of life and culture in forming individual and societal world views.

University educators as well take seriously the significance of understanding World Views. The mission of University of North Carolina’s WORLD VIEW curriculum is “to prepare students to succeed in an interconnected, diverse, and multicultural world…[and to] accomplish this by…integrating a global perspective into every subject area of the curriculum and at every grade level.”

Despite its academic and political origins, “World View” is today, according to Focus on the Family, “the latest buzzword” in evangelical Christian circles to define the differences between religious and secular understanding of the world and man’s place within it. It “is the framework from which we view reality and make sense of life and the world”. Further, they emphasize that “whether we know it or not, we all have [a worldview]”. Another influential evangelical leader, the late Charles Colson, says that it is “the sum total of our beliefs about the world”

Perhaps most significantly, Focus on the Family emphasizes that “a person’s worldview…determines his attitudes, beliefs and ultimately, actions”. These are, not coincidentally, the very aspects of the changes in perspectives and life directions that the Overview Effect shifted for the astronauts.

Perhaps as well, it was this growing evangelical consensus that led Republican Presidential Primary candidate Rick Santorum, at the height of the debate over President Obama’s faith to shift the argument to a more culturally supported framework. “I have repeatedly said I don’t question the president’s faith…I am talking about his world view, and the way he approaches problems in this country.”

World Views and Paradigms

So worldviews are internal models of the world that are the way the world appears to each of us. They are neither the result of simple euphoria nor specifically a spiritual or metaphysical experience, though each of these can be byproducts of such a powerful experience for specific individuals.

However, it is difficult to deny that anyone who sees the reality of the Earth and the Universe would experience some degree of change to their “World-View” or “Paradigm”. Arguably, seeing the Earth in the Universe is the largest conceivable physical shift in our internal picture of the world that is possible. As we have also seen, this particular aspect of space travel will have a greater impact on our immediate world situation than any specific (and often distant) scientific or economic gain. And it will also drive them!

It tells us more about who (and where) we are, and will act as a more significant guide to the decisions confronting the world today. This is the true value of space travel and the current programs, projects and companies that are working to expand access to space.

The space advocates’ case for the science, technology, resource, economic and planetary security benefits of space access is clearly valid. But the critics’ argument that massive space projects, given our current world conditions, need to demonstrate cost effective near term benefits to current world challenges, is also valid.

The “missing piece” in the debate is the demonstrable, scientifically supported shifting of “World Views” toward a sustainable, humanitarian, “Planetary” perspective that will guide and galvanize positive action in just those areas of greatest challenge to the world today.

Conclusion

This is the “Third Case” for human space travel that has been in plain sight since the beginning of the Space Age. It has been seen in astronaut statements, the most realistic space visualizations and the historic space related socio/cultural effects that have been changing the world for the last fifty years.

This “World Change” case for space, one that actually drove the early rocket scientists and space advocates, inspired the space science fiction that in turn inspired astronauts, rocket scientists and the public, will be the first and possibly the most enduring “product” of space exploration and travel.

Over and above all the science, technology, resources and business, and indeed driving all of them, the Overview Effect of human space travel will be the greatest immediate benefit of any space program because it will change our View of the World toward the reality of the Earth as a Planet in an infinite universe.

 

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Apr
03

World-Change Through the Overview Effect

 The Astronauts’ Experiences

[This is my fifth post analyzing the implications of the article that space authority James Oberg wrote in the txchnologist blogI have suggested that he has touched on a seldom mentioned but centrally important aspect of the entire space endeavor; the cognitive (brain/mind) impact on the astronauts of seeing the Earth and space directly.  This larger aspect of seeing space is known in the space community as the “Overview Effect”. ]

The direct sensory impact on the individual space traveler is the essence of the Overview Effect, but perhaps the most important, certainly the most influential, aspect is how that seeing, when transmitted through astronaut words and pictures, affects the entire world.  

From the beginning of space flight, astronauts and cosmonauts have consistently reported just how unusual the sight of the Earth hanging in an infinite space of billions of stars really is.  Their personal descriptions, outside the bare accounts of their mission, have often been peculiar and counter-intuitive.  My first post in this series quoted a wide range of such accounts.

Despite being highly educated, often in Earth and space sciences, they report being emotionally (if not intellectually) surprised to see that the atmosphere is “paper-thin” and that the biosphere is so visually rich and interactive that it seems like a living being, (giving rise to the increasingly accepted scientific model of the “Gaia Hypothesis”).

Even the fact that the Earth is round and just “hanging in space”, and that the stars are not just “overhead” but hemispherically around us is now deeply intuited, not just known intellectually.  In short, they directly perceive the reality of the Earth as a planet.

They frequently report that these new and strange sensations changed many of their previous perspectives and understandings of life on Earth, even their own lives, in powerful and positive ways.  As Dr. Charles Berry, the astronauts’ long-time physician and surgeon said: “No one who went into space wasn’t changed by the experience.”

 The Astronauts’ Predictions That the Overview Effect Will Drive World Change

Perhaps even more significantly, many astronauts have said that it is their belief that anyone who goes into space will be similarly affected, and that when large numbers of citizens and leaders finally go, it will have a profound effect on our world, our culture and our future.

 “There’s no doubt in my mind that if more people fly, there has to be more understanding of what [we’re] talking about.” Astronaut/Senator “Jake” Garn (The Overview Effect, pg. 272)

 The Curious Divide Between Space and World-Change Advocates

Many critics of space programs, whether government or commercial, argue that we are diverting attention and resources from solving the various world challenges that currently fill our social and political media.

Yet advocates for various solutions to these world challenges often argue that the public and leaders need to adopt a “global perspective” in order to understand the magnitude and interrelationship of the problems and to develop a sense of “planetary unity” necessary to agree on strategies required for solving problems that exist on such a global scale.

Curiously, a central aspect of the Overview Effect of space travel on the mind and thinking of the astronauts is this very sense of “planetary citizenship and stewardship” in many of the same areas that space critics are calling for.  Given that we are on the cusp of potentially tens of thousands of private citizens and world leaders having this experience themselves, this indicates a peculiar disconnect between these two initiatives, and that if the Overview Effect were more widely understood, it might well make them natural allies.

 Listen to the Astronauts Own Descriptions

A large majority of these statements, while varying in intensity and the area of change, fall into a small set of frequently repeated perceptions.  Here are some sample groups:

 The Environment

Perhaps the most commonly talked about shift is toward Environmental Awareness and sensitivity, leading a number of astronauts to environmental advocacy.  The experience apparently begins with a heightened sense of reality or presence, which then often seems to lead naturally to a realization of the fragility of the life-sustaining biosphere:

“First, you are able to really picture the physical universe after being in space.  It’s not a concept anymore.  Now that I’ve seen the…features of the Earth, I have a physical feel for them that is different from the experience down here.” Astronaut Edward Gibson (In The Overview Effect, Pg224)

“That beautiful, warm, living object looked so fragile, so delicate that if you touched it with a finger it would crumble and fall apart.” – James Irwin, Apollo 15 (The Overview Effect, pg. 38)

“For the first time in my life I saw the horizon as a curved line.  It was accentuated by a thin seam of dark blue light – our atmosphere.  Obviously this was not the ocean of air I have been told it was so many times in my life.  I was terrified by its fragile appearance.” (The Home Planet, pg. 58)

This sense of fragility, so often mentioned, leads in turn to a frequently stated felt need to protect the environment and to share this desire with the world:

“A Chinese tale tells of some men sent to harm a young girl, who, upon seeing here beauty, became her protectors rather than her violators.  That’s how I felt seeing the Earth for the first time. I could not help but love and cherish her.” Taylor Wang, first Chinese/American astronaut (The Home Planet, pg. 60).

“…[T]hese or similar feelings and thoughts were the stimulus for the creation of…The Association of Space Explorers [the astronauts’ own organization]…Our major anxiety and personal responsibility was to protect and conserve the Earth’s environment…we are united by a common goal…We hope that everyone will come to share our particular cosmic perception of the world and our desire to unite all the peoples of the Earth in the task of safeguarding our common and only, fragile and beautiful, home.” – Cosmonaut Oleg Makrov, co-founder of the ASE, (Preface to The Home Planet, published as companion to the founding of the ASE).

Histories of the Environmental Movement often state that the words and pictures of the astronauts jumpstarted the modern Movement in the early 70’s.  Many authorities have also said that there would never have been, at least at such an early time, a Clean Air Act, Clean Water Act, National Environmental Protection Act, or the massive celebrations of Earth Day, without those words and pictures. 

International Relations

Many astronauts have stated that their “particular cosmic perception” would also positively influence many other international issues.

“A steady stream of world leaders should go…It would have a profound effect on their wisdom.” Joe Allen (The Overview Effect, pg. 235).

“…[Allen is] right…It would have a positive effect on their future decisions concerning war and peace.” Astronaut and Senator, Bill Nelson – (The Overview Effect, pg. 286).

“You wonder, if you could get everyone in the world up there, wouldn’t they have a different feeling – a new perspective…” Gene Cernan, Apollo 10 and 17 – (The Overview Effect, pg. 206).

 The Feeling of Earth Citizenship and Humanitarian Concerns

Another very frequently stated shift is coming back feeling like a “Citizen of the Earth” and developing corresponding humanitarian concerns for the people of the world.

“I’m sure this is a commonly related thing…you realize it’s a very artificial thing to put boundaries between us…you become more of a global citizen.” Marc Garneau (The Overview Effect, pg. 252)

“Suddenly, you get a feeling you’ve never had before, that you’re an inhabitant of Earth” Cosmonaut Oleg Makarov (Preface to The Home Planet)

“I guess you would call it a feeling of brotherhood.  People who had a religious background expressed it in religious terms, and people who didn’t expressed it in more humanitarian terms.  But the idea, and I experience this myself, was that you…could see how incredibly thin the Earth’s atmosphere is and realize…there is no lifeboat, and everybody is in it together.” – Don Lind (The Overview Effect, pg 273).

 “We went to the Moon as technicians.  We came back as humanitarians.” Edgar Mitchell, Apollo 14.

This is just a small selection of hundreds of similar quotes.  Many can be found in The Overview Effect: Space Exploration and Human Evolution, The Home Planet, and EarthRise: How Man First Saw the Earth.

 Conclusion

Commercial space travel will soon burst upon a largely unknowing public.  Once these fresh firsthand accounts from high-profile individuals begin to percolate through the media-sphere, and the historic astronaut accounts are recalled in support, the inherent limitations of space media, which have kept the Overview Effect from us here on Earth, will become more apparent.

It will have a transformative impact on both space travelers and society as the influence of their inevitable reports and later actions go viral in our interconnected social media world. 

It will also change our appreciation of the nature and value of space travel to our current world condition and gradually bring a growing “sense” or “taste” of the actual nature of the experience of the Overview Effect to lasting public awareness, dramatically shifting the internal image of the world for many millions.

By making public the connections between the Overview Effect and the many current world challenges now seen as priorities OVER space travel, many of the current critics of the New Space industry might well quickly become its champions.

Given this potential to unite two currently competing initiatives for the benefit of the entire world, the communication of the Overview Effect might well be one of the most important, hopeful and immediately constructive projects of our time… an undertaking that could literally allow The Overview Effect to Change The World.

 

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Mar
21

Why is it so Difficult to Communicate the Overview Effect of Space?

The Art and Science of Space Media

When James Oberg wrote in the txchnologist blog that astronauts have difficulty in seeing the Earth from space during their first flights, and require some time to develop “Space Sight”, he touched on a seldom mentioned but centrally important aspect of the entire space endeavor.

This seldom mentioned aspect is the cognitive impact on the astronauts of seeing the Earth and space directly and, perhaps more importantly, how that seeing, when transmitted to the Earth-bound population through astronaut words and pictures, has affected the entire world.  This larger aspect of seeing space is known in the space community as the “Overview Effect”.

From the beginning of space flight, astronauts and cosmonauts have consistently reported just how unusual the sight of the Earth hanging in an infinite space of billions of stars really is.  Their personal descriptions, outside the bare accounts of their mission, have often been peculiar and counter-intuitive.  My first post in this series quoted a wide range of such accounts.

Despite being highly educated, often in Earth and space sciences, they report being emotionally (if not intellectually) surprised to see that the atmosphere is “paper-thin” and that the biosphere is so visually rich and interactive that it seems like a living being, (giving rise to the increasingly accepted scientific model of the “Gaia Hypothesis”).

Even the fact that the Earth is round and just “hanging in space” and that the stars are not just “overhead” but hemispherically around us is now deeply intuited, not just known intellectually.  In short, they directly perceive the reality of the Earth as a planet.

These and many other sensations are so new and so strange that they report many of their previous perspectives and understandings of life on Earth, even their own lives, are changed in powerful and positive ways.  As Dr. Charles Berry, the astronauts’ long-time physician and surgeon said: “No one who went into space wasn’t changed by the experience.”

Again, perhaps even more significantly, many astronauts have said that it is their belief that anyone who goes into space will be similarly affected, and that when large numbers of citizens and leaders finally go, it will have a profound effect on our world, our culture and our future. 

Given this “profound effect” vetted by so many astronauts, why is the Overview Effect so little known or understood?  What makes it so hard to communicate?

 Why is the Overview Effect so Little Known?

A New Space Age is now aborning; a new, commercially enhanced age of space travel that promises to carry tens of thousands of private citizens (and hopefully leaders) as well as whole aspects of our culture into space.  One would think that this potentially transformative aspect of the Overview Effect would be an important idea in this New Space Age.

Curiously, few outside the space community are even aware that the Overview Effect exists, and even many space leaders and advocates radically misunderstand it and are often reluctant to talk publically about it.  Astronauts have frequently said that their experiences are difficult to communicate, even using the best space images they return with. 

As Apollo 11 astronaut James Collins succinctly put it, “Those who saw pictures of the Earth and then thought ‘Oh, I’ve seen everything those astronauts have seen were kidding themselves…an image alone was a pseudo-sight that denies the reality of the matter.”

Certainly if space travel has such powerful, positive and transformative effects on the space traveler, and potentially on the culture to which it is transmitted, the next question is why have all our space media and astronaut accounts not communicated a more powerful understanding, let alone awareness, of the Overview Effect to us? 

This is where the field of Media Theory enters the equation.  As we’ll see, understanding the nature of media, and in this specific case, SPACE media, both its limitations and potential, is as important as the nature of perception itself to a full understanding of the Overview Effect.  First let me briefly review the role of perception itself in the space experience.

 The Cognitive Science of Perception

In my previous post I outlined how the most recent advances in the Cognitive (brain/mind) sciences, with its new model of perception helps us to see how and why the space experience is so unexpected and affecting.  These new perception models explain that we see in a radically different manner than most of us think, or were taught in school. 

This new model of perception highlights the degree to which our brain “constructs” the scenes that we just seem to “see” by simply looking out through our eyes.  Indeed, it emphasizes that the light that enters our eyes does not have enough information to transmit the perceptions that we have.  Our brain takes this limited information and “constructs” the images we “see” based on previous perceptions and information.  This new model is frequently described as “the Brain’s Best Guess” as to what the world looks like.

According to Dr. Dale Purves, head of the Duke University Center for Cognitive Neuroscience, “I don’t believe there is a reputable cognitive scientist in the world today that thinks we are simply and directly “seeing” the physical world.”  His authoritative textbook, “Why We See What We Do,” and his award-winning website www.purveslab.net, documents his research.

 Media Theory: The Nature and Limitations of Media Images

Modern media theory, aligned with these same new cognitive perception models, explains that even high-resolution photos and video have far less information than we imagine.  Such “realistic” images are considered by cognitive/media researchers to be like a “visual language” that people in media saturated cultures like our own learn to interpret at such a young age that we are unaware of making the “translation” from the abstract nature of images into the seemingly “lifelike” representations of the physical world we take them for.

People from cultures without highly a developed representational art, people born blind who regain their sight later in life through an operation and very young infants, do not experience even “realistic” photographs as representing the physical world to the degree that the “visually experienced” do.  Visual experience with media images allows us to infer depth, 3D shape and other qualities obviously lacking in a flat image.

Because of our extensive life-long experience of comparing our multi-sensory perceptions of the world with the media representations, we make the translation so naturally we are unaware we are doing so, much like the way we hear our native language as immediately communicating ideas and images despite the complex learning process that young children or those learning second languages must go through.

Media theorists such as Marshal McLuhan and others have told us for decades that media images are shaping our internal models of the world in powerful ways that we are only vaguely aware of.  This “paradigm-creating” effect of media and the forms of media we habitually use was what McLuhan meant by his iconic statement “The Medium is the Message,” That is, the very forms of our media structures the way we see so strongly, that in many ways it has at least as powerful effects on our minds as the “messages” they transmit.

 Cognitive/Media Limitations and The Overview Effect

What these new models of vision and media tell us about the Overview Effect is that when the astronauts see the Earth and Space directly for the first time (after having only seen inherently limited media images), they experience a sudden “information overload.”  Their brains struggle to make sense of what they’re seeing as their media-created internal models of the Earth and space are restructured by the sudden new information.

In this struggle, which many have described as an “overload of sensation,” their internal models and understanding of many different aspects of the Earth and space (previously created out of only limited media images), are shifted in many and sometimes life changing ways.  This is the heart of the Overview Effect.

So the seemingly obvious feeling that we have “seen” the Earth and space because we have seen the media images the astronauts, space probes, and telescopes have provided to us, is not supported by the astronauts themselvesCertainly space media lacks such overloads. The astronauts then, are our only true “subject matter experts”.  Everyone else is just guessing!

The astronauts, who were exposed to the best Earth and space media that NASA could provide, still had powerful and largely unexpected experiences of shifted perceptions and perspectives from their direct sensory experience.  As Don Lind said in The Overview Effect; “Intellectually, I knew what to expect.  I have probably looked at as many pictures [of the Earth] from space as anybody…But there is no way you can be prepared for the emotional impact.”

More sophisticated and immersive media forms, such as IMAX 3D, provide a more realistic experience, but still don’t “make the leap” to the Overview Effect.  John Grunsfeld, one of the astronauts on the last Hubble repair mission, attended the Premier in Raleigh North Carolina, of the IMAX movie “Hubble 3D” that documented the mission.  He agreed that the large screen 3D presentation was obviously highly effective in bringing the drama and reality of the astronauts floating around the giant space telescope into the theatre, and the Hubble’s pictures of the universe were breathtaking and even awe inspiring.

Yet when I asked Grunsfeld about the Overview Effect, and how much of the experience of seeing the Earth hanging in a star-filled universe came through the movie, he succinctly replied, “Not much.”  If the giant IMAX 3D is limited in its ability to communicate space, then imagine what you are getting on your T.V., computer, tablet; let alone your I-Phone(!)

This is certainly not to minimize the sense of wonder, grandeur, and incredible scale of the Universe that Hubble pictures and other space media have brought to our world, which is also an aspect of the Overview Effect.  But there has been something of a disconnect between the images of the universe and the images of the Earth in that universe.  From the astronauts’ descriptions, it is this combined vision that is the essence of the Overview Effect experience.

 The Second Limitation of Space Media – The Intent of the Director

Thus limitations in the image capture and projection systems account for a major part of this disconnect.  But there is a second factor that separates conventional Space Media images from the astronaut’s true perception.  This is the Intent of the producer/director.

The vast majority of Space Media has obviously been taken by NASA.  Quite naturally, their primary intent is to document their program.  This means a focus on the space craft, Earth, Moon and the astronauts at work and leisure.

Their intent has not been to capture the astronauts’ personal experiences.  This is not a criticism of NASA.  The mission is their focus and the astronauts are the people who carry out the mission.  A real estate developer, who documents the construction of his buildings, seldom interviews his workers on their personal experiences of the project.

However, for the public, especially in this new age of public space travel, the nature of the experience will have greater meaning than the development and use of the technology.

The astronauts have consistently mentioned specific elements of the space scene that have been powerful triggers for their shifted perspectives.  The incredible thinness of the atmosphere, the obvious “life-like” interactivity of the biosphere, the visceral feeling of the “roundness” of the Earth and the hemispherical surround of the stars are frequently mentioned examples.  With the possible exception of the thin atmosphere, few of these “come through” or even show in the majority of conventional NASA footage.

And while space movie and other visual art creators have wider latitude in their works, they are still working from the NASA originals.  And the astronauts more descriptive “Overview Effect” accounts are little known to the public.  So, creative space media still frequently omits many of the visual “triggers” of the actual experience itself.  The very fact that the four decade old 2001: A Space Odyssey is still remarked for its uniquely powerful evocation of the space experience, is evidence that such space media is rare.

 Third Limitation of  Space Media – Understanding the Experience

From the beginning of the Space Program, astronauts have been rumored to have had “spiritual” or “metaphysical” experiences or epiphanies.  While there are a number of interesting reports of such transcendental experiences (among the most interesting are by Edgar Mitchell and James Irwin).

A second explanation of the space experience is “Space Euphoria”, a term which dates to early NASA scientists who realized that some sort of sensory experience was sometimes distracting astronauts from their tasks and was likened to “Rapture of the Deep, which sometimes affects SCUBA divers.

Unfortunately, for many folks, these rare and unusual experiences have come to be conflated with the Overview Effect.  While clearly not descriptive of the mass of astronaut experiences or their range of perspective changes, they have tended to keep the majority of space leaders and advocates from speaking about the Overview Effect in public.  Given the fact that the New Space field is working hard to achieve credibility in the eyes of Congress, Wall Street and the public this reticence is perhaps understandable.  Clarifying the nature of the experience and its scientific support will allow the Overview Effect to take it rightful place in the New Space Age.

 Conclusion

The Overview Effect of space travel is a subtle and difficult to communicate internal, perceptual experience.  The Two Keys to overcoming this barrier are  1) The use of more sophisticated, realistic and immersive media technology and  2) An artistic approach to capture and creation that listens to and embeds the astronauts’ own observations into the images rather than working only from previous images and imagination without astronaut input.

While both the technology, tools and astronaut accounts are currently available there is presently little awareness of the dramatic disconnect between the experience of existing space media and the experiences described by the astronauts.  Hence, there is little demand for, or the drive to create, such media experiences. 

Bringing these little known or understood space experiences and disconnects to wider public and space community attention is the first step and the primary goal of The Overview Blog.

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Mar
16

Seeing Space – Cognitive Science Illuminates the “Overview Effect”

A New Understanding of the Nature and Value Of Human Space Travel

In my last couple of posts I’ve been expanding on a recent Txchnologist article by space authority James Oberg.  Oberg quotes several astronauts on their difficulty in seeing the Earth from space for the first time and the fact that it seemed to take some period of observation before they were able to adequately perceive it.   

From many astronaut reports, seeing the Earth and space has been, from the beginning, an unusual and often life changing experience.  They have reported shifts in understanding of many of the most significant issues and challenges of our time, and if experienced by more world citizens and leaders, such experiences will change the world.

I’ve suggested then, that this “difficulty” is only the tip of the iceberg of a much larger, more complex and more fundamentally important issue, one that, better understood, might well change our understanding of the very nature and value of human space travel.

What Cognitive Science Tells Us About the “Overview Effect”

My background includes decades of research and experimentation in the nature of human perception; the field of Cognitive (brain/mind) Science.  I have a particular focus on the Perception of Media Images; especially how they are similar to, different from, and interact with, our perception of the physical world.

I submit that examining the experience of “seeing space” from a cognitive/media perspective yields rich understanding of how and why the astronauts report such unusual perceptions.  Also, it reveals why these unusual perceptions often change their perspectives and attitudes (and sometime their lives); an experience which, in the space community, is most often referred to as the Overview Effect.

The astronauts are our only true “subject matter experts” on the direct perception of space.  On the other hand, many other more prosaic experiences often elicit strong cognitive changes without the experiencer themselves being able to say how or why.  Those affected by a sunset for example, a crisp spring morning, or a symphony, may differ wildly when trying to explain the “how’s and why’s”. In recent years, one way we’ve gained more understanding of these otherwise “ineffable” experiences is through the investigations of Cognitive Science, which are using increasingly sophisticated ways of examining sensory experiences directly in the brain.

 

The New Cognitive Model of Human Perception:

“The Brain’s Best Guess”

Current cognitive research in human perception provides tremendous insight into these curious reports.  The growing consensus in the field emphasizes the degree to which our perception of the physical world is “constructed” by our brain/mind by combining relatively “ambiguous” sensory sensations (light, sound, etc.) with internal patterns and models created by our previous intellectual and sensory experiences.

Indeed, a frequently used description among perception scientists is that the images of our perception are our brain’s “best guess” as to what is out there in the physical world.  Laymen are often surprised when learning that this very counter-intuitive understanding of our perceptions is today the most widely held “default” position in perception science.  Here’s a comprehensive (and widely linked) New Yorker Article by award-winning science writer/surgeon Atul Gawande, and a brief abstract of the article.

The degree to which previous experiences (and the ideas and beliefs derived from them) so infuse our present perceptions, makes it is literally hard to “see” or makes sense of, images that are far removed from our previous fund of experiences.  This is what Oberg’s astronauts are describing.  Their direct perceptions of space are being created only partially from what their eyes are recording, and are given form and substance by their prior mental models of the Earth and Space.

Space Media as “Optical Illusions”

It is instructive that much of these emerging new research findings and perception models are based on analysis of the perception of Optical Illusions.  The reasoning, as one researcher puts it, is “if we can understand how the brain creates a perception of something that is ‘not there’, we would have a handle on how it creates a perception of something that we insist ‘is there’, but of which we have only ‘ambiguous’ sensory data.”

Obviously, the astronauts’ internal models have come only from media images and information. And, as we will see, media images contain far less information than we think.  In fact, to the cognitive/media theorist, they are actually similar to optical illusions, or at least forms of a learned “visual language.”  Sir Richard Gregory (sometimes called the “Dean” of cognitive science) explains that when internal models of the objects of perception are sparse and the new sensory data is robust; the brain must work much harder to create perceptions. 

Here’s where this seeming “inability of the astronaut to see” reveals itself as something more fundamental; a shifting of those very internal patterns and models which underlie perception itself.  For according to cognitive researchers, the mind abhors ambiguity, and will hold to a previous model until overwhelmed with conflicting sensory experience.

The key here is that we are largely unaware that media images, even high definition photographs and videos contain so little sensory information.  The astronauts’ direct perceptions undoubtedly overwhelm and challenge their previous media-based understanding and result in a shifting or “updating” of their internal models of the Earth and space.

The perceptual mechanisms of their brain/minds want to hold to the earlier models, even in the face of vast differences from their current direct sensation.  This is the sense that they are struggling to “see” the Earth.  In fact, they are struggling to shift their internal models to account for the new and much richer (and often quite different) sensations.  This struggle is quickly overwhelmed by the massive amount of sensory data.  Indeed, Oberg says, Virtually every space traveler to date has reported being overloaded by new sensations.”

The Overview Effect as “Paradigm Shift”

The landmark work of Thomas Kuhn in the philosophy of science, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, (and here) emphasizes that it was the hold of these previous mental models that he called, “Paradigms” that made it so difficult for even the greatest scientists of a previous age to accept revolutionary scientific theories, even when confronted with enormous experimental reports.

And one of Kuhn’s supporting arguments was this very “constructive” nature of vision, for which he gave numerous research examples. The very idea of “Paradigm Shifts”, now familiar throughout our culture was first articulated in this work.    [Kuhn’s analysis in “Structure” is so compelling and relevant that I will devote an entire later post to exploring it.] 

Suffice it to say that the current “brain’s best guess” model of perception and Kuhn’s analysis of Paradigm “stuckness” and “shifting” (rooted as it is in the early emergence of this now widely accepted cognitive understanding of perception), provides a robust model for understanding the Overview Effect of space travel.

If in fact the Overview Effect leads to actual paradigm shifting of the space travelers cognitive models of the significant issues the astronauts described, then the value of mass space travel to our culture is quite different from, and more fundamentally important, than the way we currently view it. 

This is how and why…

“The Overview Effect Will Change The World”

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