A Long March-7 rocket on the launch tower at the Hainan island spaceport. Photo: China News Service / Qin Xian’an

Frank White is an expert on space philosophy. Over time, he has written various renowned books about space exploration.

He wrote The Overview Effect: Space Exploration and Human Evolution about the psychological shift in thinking astronauts experience. Having interviewed many astronauts who have been to space, Frank understands the psychology of space exploration and has given extensive thought to the future of humanity beyond the Earth.

White spoke to Asia Times about his books, the need to foster international collaboration in the space sector, and the recent nomination of the International Space Station for the Nobel Peace Prize. 

Vidhi Bubna:  The Overview Effect was mentioned at the Democratic National Convention. How did you come about the idea of something as personal yet so overwhelming as the “overview effect”?

Frank White: The Overview Effect talks about the shift in perspective that a person undergoes when they witness the Earth from a distance. I have spent a great part of my life interviewing astronauts, whom I consider to be proxies for future space community members. I am a curious social scientist and I also have training in psychotherapy.

Through several experiences of personal growth and transformation, I have come to the understanding that astronauts have the potential to be agents for social change. Most astronauts say that being in space makes you realize that “We’re all in this together.”

The Earth is a tiny place for human habitation and survival and the rest of the universe is vast. When you look at the Earth from far away, the realization hits you that this planet is really all that we have got.

Space travel changes our consciousness. We are able to develop a new appreciation of Earth as a system when we see it from above. And I am really interested in exploring how this shift in consciousness can impact our behavior. That is what the “overview effect” is all about.

VB: What excites you toward understanding the psychology of astronauts?

FW: Astronauts have to work in an environment where divisions created by human beings really do not last. They hail from different countries which could be entangled in several conflicts, but when they are out there, they need to build a station and work together. 

They experience weightlessness. Their heart shrinks and they become taller as the spine is not compressed, and even their brain begins to change. The experiences of astronauts are really valuable when one seeks to explore the impact of shift in overall consciousness, over human behavior and community relations. It is not just about the visual consciousness, but also temporal.

Your understanding of time changes, because you witness around 16 sunrises and sunsets over the duration of what we know as one day. 

These experiences that astronauts bring back to Earth could really be very insightful to explore their impact on human behavior and social structures, and most importantly, our ability to survive. As you would know, on Earth we enjoy protection from harmful radiations. But in outer space, [on the] moon or Mars, we are really very vulnerable. It is worth thinking how this is going to impact mutations and the possibility of diseases.

VB: With the Covid-19 pandemic, there has been increased nationalism. How can the world increase international collaborations during the pandemic?

FW: In the initial days of the Covid-19 outbreak, there had been a lot of collaboration among countries. I believe that much of it is probably still there, even though it is not being reported. I just hope that once we come out with a vaccine to counter the virus, we do not forget what living during the pandemic had been like. The world is in this together. Covid is trying to live in you no matter whether you are in India, China or the USA. 

This is a lot similar to space exploration. The astronauts, when they come back, tell you that there is a lot of noise and division amongst us. But up there, they feel it as a matter of fact that we are all together. This sense of togetherness and cooperation needs to be augmented in us time and again, so that we don’t let our older tendencies of tribal divisions interfere with our united humanitarian consciousness.

VB: What is “the Copernican Perspective”? Is it something that you came out with?

FW: Well, Copernicus was the first person to suggest that the sun does not revolve around the Earth, but it is rather the other way round. This understanding that the Earth in itself is not whole, but part of a larger system is what the Copernican perspective entails. 

The visual and temporal shifts in consciousness that I just spoke about, these help us in building a new sort of connection with the universe in our minds. The farther away you shift from Earth, the greater the paradigm shift in your level of consciousness.

Being on the moon is going to be different than being on the Earth’s orbit. Being on Mars is going to be very different because of … physical factors. Every planet and region in space will change our perspective differently. We need to understand that our perspectives will change a lot when we inhabit other places in space. 

VB: There were three missions to Mars sent from different countries this year. Do you think that the countries could have collaborated for the Mars mission?

FW: One of my projects focuses on building a “Human Space Program” that will be about a global commitment to exploring the universe. The world needs to collaborate more as we explore outer space. Our goal should not be to send a particular country on this journey, but to send humanity as a whole. We need programs that aim to create and foster collaboration. 

We need to realize that every choice that we make right now is going to impact the lives of our descendants on Mars and the moon who would have to live with the consequences of our decisions.

VB: Tell us something about the other book of yours, The Cosma Hypothesis, and what it deals with. 

FW: When astronauts reach space, they get to see a lot more stars unblinking in their atmosphere. Experiences of the universe like these [are] what I have tried to capture in The Cosma Hypothesis.

It talks about our evolutionary purpose as a species – which, I believe, is to make life and the universe more intelligent, and to help humanity. The hypothesis is that our purpose is to spread life, intelligence, and self-awareness into the universe; another way of saying it is to make the universe more alive, intelligent, and self-aware. 

VB: The ISS has been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize this year. Do you believe at some level, there’s a broad correlation between your theory and the nomination itself?

FW: Well, I don’t know if I had a part to play in it, but the International Space Station but The Overview Effect encourages environmental advocacy and greater peace on Earth. I was one of the people who sent a letter across in support of ISS winning the Nobel Peace Prize. I think they deserve it.

VB: Last, on a personal level, do you believe human settlement is going to find Mars as its new abode? How much do you agree or disagree on that? What are the challenges that will come in its way, psychologically and otherwise? 

FW: If humans are going to live on Mars some day, it is worth wondering whether we would be terribly hit by homesickness and depression. Maybe people born there won’t feel homesick, because they would be Martians.

I once spoke to the c0-founder of Mars One, a short-lived organization which was planning to offer one-way tickets to Mars. I told them that it wasn’t a good idea to have one-way tickets because people would not want to go unless they could return. He said that many people who expressed interest to go did not want to come back and wanted to build a civilization there.

Vidhi Bubna is a freelance writer based in Mumbai who covers politics, defense, economy and international relations.