Apollo, the Dragon, and the Overview Effect
Not long ago, I got up at 3:30 am to watch the Falcon rocket blast off. In doing so, I recalled the all-nighter I pulled in Oxford, England, in July 1969 to watch the landing of Apollo 11 on the moon. To me, these two missions were similar because nothing would be the same afterward. And both missions, I believe, are related to the Overview Effect and its impact on our awareness of who we are and where we are in the universe.
How can this be, you may ask. After all, the Apollo missions represented the first time we saw the whole Earth, gave us our first glimpse of "Earthrise," and helped give the environmental movement a kickstart as a major factor in shaping attitudes and behaviors on our planet. Didn’t Apollo represent the Overview Effect par excellence? And wasn’t this SpaceX launch just an unmanned cargo craft resupplying the International Space Station (ISS)? How could the two have anything in common?
Let me try to answer that question as best I can. I suppose on launch day, I simply knew that both were "historic" turning points, but I wasn’t sure how. It wasn’t until the following Monday, when the Dragon linked up with the ISS that the connection with the Overview Effect became more clear.
The most obvious link was simply in what NASA TV showed us as the Dragon maneuvered into position at an increasingly smaller distance from the space station. There, in the background, I saw amazingly beautiful video of the Earth rolling past, sometimes showing puffs of clouds, sometimes land masses, and at other times, the oceans. Of course, the NASA commentator wasn’t doing a program about the Overview Effect, so he didn’t comment on the view. He focused on the spacecraft below, the conversations among the flight controllers, and the issues that were arising as the moment of docking approached.
However, it occurred to me that many more people were watching this broadcast than would usually be the case, and this was a good thing. NASA TV often shows striking video from orbit, but they do not have a very large audience to see these images. With a larger group watching, people might have an experience of the Overview Effect for the very first time that morning, even if they didn’t know what it was!
Then, what came to mind was Elon Musk, the entrepreneur behind this magnificent moment. He, too, was receiving more attention than usual on this day, and deservedly so. In response to questions about "What next?", he might have said that he just wanted to fulfill his contract with NASA to keep flying more supplies to the ISS. He said that, of course, but he has also talked about humanity becoming a multi-planet species, and his goal of sending large numbers of people to Mars.
In a flash, I realized that a long-held dream of mine might come true in my lifetime: thousands of people experiencing the Overview Effect, instead of the 500 plus that have had the experience so far.
This is the true promise of the NewSpace industry, which includes visionaries like Musk, Sir Richard Branson, Jeff Bezos, Peter Diamandis, and many others. It is not the suborbital hops and space hotels, the moon missions and Mars colonies alone that really matter. It is, rather, that we will soon reach the point where as many people will see the Earth from a distance within a week’s time as have experienced it in the past 50 years.
At some point in the life of a human system, a quantitative change leads to a qualitative change. For decades, we have observed a few hundred astronauts and cosmonauts undergoing the shift in worldview represented by the Overview Effect, and we have been saying, "this is extraordinary." Now, soon, this will happen to many, many ordinary people and, through them, to society as a whole.
At that point, we will become not only a multi-planet species but also a species that is aware of its true destiny, i.e., to become Citizens of the Universe.
Thank you, Neil Armstrong. Thank you, Elon Musk. Thank you Apollo and Dragon.