The Overview Effect: Space Exploration and Human Evolution by Frank White (Houghton Mifflin: $17.95; 308 pages)
All those wishing for a rip-roaring, unstinting, uncritical salute to space exploration should rush right out and snap up a copy of "The Overview Effect," a book that asserts right off that the space program could be "the greatest central project in human history," no less.
Author Frank White wastes no time putting his cards on the table. A page or two later he tell us that "Humanity's expansion into the solar system and beyond will result in a fundamental transformation of the human species, an evolutionary step unprecedented in human history."
White's launching pad is the effect that space travel has had on many of the nearly 200 people who have done it since Yuri Gargarin got the ball rolling in 1961. White is much impressed by their testimony about what a moving experience it was.
Many astronauts and cosmonauts have spoken of the feelings of peace and euphoria brought about by seeing the Earth from space. They have insights into the unity of all humanity.
White argues that this perspective needs to be nurtured and encouraged on Earth. That is the "overview" to which the title refers.
Getting Fired Up
"Space has become a symbol of humanity working out its destiny," he says, "war or peace, cooperation or competition, love or hate. The overview says it all: We are one; we are all in this together; war and strife solve nothing." Once he gets fired up this way, White soars off into the near and far reaches of imagination with speculations on new civilizations and such and somewhat mystical (some might say soupy) prose, to wit:
"The human space program . . . . represents a great hope for the future of humanity because it is aligned with universal purpose. . . .
"Do the new civilizations have anything to do with you?
"The answer depends on you."
So this is a popular book for enthusiasts, space cadets, as cynical reporters sometimes call them. But there is another side to this story, and it is fair to say that what some people consider visionary others may find far-fetched.
It's OK for the type, better than many, not as good as some. It certainly lays out one option for a nation that has yet to enunciate a coherent space policy. White's policy would be "Full speed ahead! Onward to the stars!"
As noted, "The Overview Effect" relies heavily on the words of space travelers themselves, and the last third of the book is a compilation of what many of them have written or said about the experience. Some of the material in this section comes from a number of interviews that White conducted with people who have flown in space.
This is the best part of the book, marred slightly by White's decision to paraphrase the interviews in places.
The astronauts have gotten a bad rap over the years as poor communicators unable to say anything better than "Boy, what a ride!" about their trip into space. Typically, however, their reflections have come after their journeys, not while they were under way. Their published writings, including several books, comprise a large literature, some of which is fairly banal but some of which conveys the experience quite well.
White notes that not all of the astronauts have been metaphysically changed by spaceflight, though some claim to be. Edgar Mitchell, for example, who walked on the moon in February, 1971, as the lunar module pilot of the third landing mission, has since founded the Institute for Noetic Sciences and now speaks of Eastern religions and cites Descartes, Locke and Spinoza.
Though there are wide differences in the experiences that astronauts had in space and in their abilities to talk about it, no one who has been in space has yet said that he wishes he had not gone. And all of them continue to believe, along with White and many others, that space exploration is a fundamentally important activity that needs full support.
I will withhold judgment on whether it has all of the cosmic implications that White claims for it--both on Earth and in the universe--but it seems beyond question that space exploration should be pursued.
It remains unclear, and there is no national consensus, about what path to take. It is significant and disappointing that no candidate for President has said much if anything about space. It is a vital topic that has been largely ignored as the nation gears up to decide national priorities at the ballot box.