The Overview Effect at 25: Part II 1993-1998

Written by Frank White.

After the first flurry of publicity about The Overview Effect, and the spate of speaking opportunities it provided, responses to the book—and sales—slowed considerably.  My strategy had been to write a series of books on space exploration, and I had hoped that The Overview Effect would do well enough to support me in writing the rest of the series. However, I had only been able to manage to write and publish one of those, The SETI Factor, which looked at how the search for extraterrestrial intelligence was changing our views of the universe and ourselves.

I did have the distinct honor of co-authoring two books with one of my heroes, Isaac Asimov, during this period (Think About Space and March of the Millennia). Unfortunately, none of the four books published during this period generated much income, so I took a full-time job at Harvard Medical School in 1993.

For a number of reasons, including the demands of the job, traveling to promote the book more or less ceased at this time, so there was very little chance to boost sales.

Regarding the history of the Overview Effect as an idea, there were many events taking place of which I was not aware. In terms of what I knew, the most important development during this time was meeting Ken Cox. Ken is an engineer who worked on the Apollo program and then remained at NASA for many years. A mutual friend put us in touch in the early 1990s, when he was managing a new, eclectic collection of people called the Advanced Technology Working Group (ATWG) as a NASA project. Ken was already a fan of the Overview Effect, and invited me to attend a few ATWG meetings. I found them to be extremely interesting and a source of innovative thinking.

Ken was also on the board of the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics (AIAA) and convinced them to take on the task of publishing a new edition of The Overview Effect. This was a major development because Houghton Mifflin had expressed no interest in doing so.

I began working on the new version of the book, putting in a half-hour or so each morning before work, rewriting the old text and bringing it up to date. Ken also wrote the foreword to the second edition (Gerry O’Neill had done the honors for the first). The most significant change was that I interviewed five women astronauts for the new edition. Another important addition to the book was an interview with Al Sacco, Jr. He interested me for a number of reasons. First, he was a local guy who taught at Northeastern University. Second, he was not your typical astronaut. I had read an article about him that said he had repeatedly been turned down and he just kept trying until he was selected as a mission specialist. I admired him for that.

The interview also included some fascinating moments. At one point, he talked about “the astronaut’s secret.” In his mind, the secret was that we are really “citizens of the universe.” This was a term I had used often in the past, and The Overview Effect had almost been named Citizens of the Universe because the marketing people thought no one would understand what “the Overview Effect” meant!

Anyway, the slow-but-sure approach worked. Over time, the new edition emerged, and it was published in 1998. I will never forget how excited my wife Donna was when she saw the first copy of the book, which AIAA had sent me. Since I had been working on it so quietly each morning before going off to work, she had very little awareness of the progress I was making.

As far as making widespread sales of the book, there was one small problem. AIAA did a small print run of about 1,000 copies, which meant that the price needed to be more than $40. There was really nothing to be done about it, and that was before Kindle and widespread use of print-on-demand, so we had to make the best of the opportunity as we could.

Still, I was thankful to Ken Cox and  everyone at AIAA for helping me to take the next step with the Overview Effect. It was quite a long time before anything new took place after that, and I entered almost a decade of feeling that the revolution in thinking that the book was meant to trigger would never come.