The Overview Effect at Twenty-Five - Part One: 1987-1992

Written by Frank White.

The first edition of The Overview Effect: Space Exploration and Human Evolution, was published by Houghton-Mifflin Company in November of 1987.  I had begun using the term earlier than that, and had presented a poster session on “The Overview Effect: A New Psychology for a New Civilization” at the Space Studies Institute’s annual conference in 1985. However, it was the book that elaborated on the concept in a complete way, and it is the book that has had the greatest influence on how people think about space exploration over the past quarter-century.

The world was very different 25 years ago, and the book appeared at a time when the view of space exploration was quite unlike what it is today.

For one thing, the Soviet Union still existed and remained the primary space power other than the United States. The International Space Station was far from complete, and the Soviets’ Mir was the only game in town (or orbit, as it were). The Challenger disaster, which had taken place in 1986, still overshadowed the American space program, and the entire shuttle fleet had been grounded. Beyond the United States and Soviet Union, the most robust space program was that of the European Space Agency. Commercial space development was limited primarily to the launching of satellites, and the idea of space tourism existed only in the realm of science fiction.

Perhaps most important is that the World Wide Web, as we know it today, did not exist. As a result, the rapid dissemination of new ideas remained largely in the future.

It was in this world that I sought to create a revolution in our thinking about space exploration and its role in human evolution. I had grand ambitions, including writing a series of books on related topics, and making my living as an author and space advocate.

As it turned out, The Overview Effect was a critical success, but a commercial disappointment. Ultimately, we sold about 8,000 copies of the first edition in English. The book was translated into German as well, but I was never able to find out how it did in Europe.

Houghton-Mifflin did secure about 40 radio interviews, a couple of television interviews (including one on CNN), and quite a few reviews. This level of promotion taught me a lesson: it is one thing to be a writer, quite another to be an “author.” Authors get interviews with the media, writers usually do not. If you write a book and then get interviewed on the radio or television, you might reach millions of people with your message, even if only 5,000 of them read the book.

The other benefit is that authors are invited to give talks at conferences. In the years after publication of the book, I spoke at various space-related events, including the keynote address at the International Space Development Conference (ISDC) in 1988. I also replaced Gene Roddenbury on a panel at George Washington University in 1989 that marked the 20th anniversary of Apollo 11. That was quite an honor, as was an invitation from NASA to a VIP viewing of the return to flight of the space shuttle after the Challenger accident. I was also invited to contribute to Pioneering the Space Frontier, the report of the National Commission on Space that had been established by President Reagan.

As the presidential campaign of 1992 heated up, I managed to get a copy of the book into Bill Clinton’s hands, and he later used the concept in a talk that he delivered on climate change.

All of these developments were gratifying, but as the book “celebrated” its fifth birthday in 1992, I had my doubts about whether the revolution I had hoped it might trigger would ever take place.

Little did I know what would take place in the not-so-distant future.