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.
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.