Interview With Frank White, Author of The Overview Effect: Space Exploration and Human Evolution

Frank White’s book, The Overview Effect: Space Exploration and Human Evolutionfirst published by Houghton-Mifflin in 1987, is now in its third edition, and is considered by many to be a seminal work in the field of space exploration and development. White is a co-founder of the Overview Institute and founder of the “Academy in Space Initiative,” which launched at Framingham State University in April of 2016, and has evolved into the Human Space Program. White is a recognized writer, lecturer, and expert source on a variety of space-related topics, including the profound impact of the Overview Effect – the experience of seeing the Earth from orbit or the moon – on humanity’s perceptions of our home world and our place in the cosmos. Moreover, he is often asked to comment on humanity’s future both on Earth and in space.

White is the author or coauthor of 14 books on topics ranging from space exploration to climate change. White is a magna cum laude graduate of Harvard College, a member of Phi Beta Kappa, and a Rhodes Scholar. He earned his M.Phil. in Politics from Oxford University. White worked for Harvard University for 17 years and now teaches at the Harvard Extension School and Harvard Summer School. He and his wife Donna live outside Boston, Massachusetts. They have five children and 10 grandchildren.

The following is an interview with Frank White.

Heidi:  What is your opinion of the 1967 space treaty and where could it be revised?

Frank White:  I think that the treaty is a positive development because it has become the basis of international law for the solar system and we really—you know, Heidi, we don’t have anything else at this point and when I was an undergraduate in college, we studied social contract theory. Social contract theory is all about why do people come together? Why do they create laws? Why do they create constitutions? It’s to avoid what those theorists called the state of nature. State of nature in which nobody is really secure and there are no real rules or regulations.

This was all theoretical, but without the outer space treaty, we pretty much are in a state of nature in the solar system. It’s positive because so many nations signed it and it’s a starting point.

I’m not sure about revising it because again, so many nations are parties to it, revising it could be very difficult. One possibility is that it’s like the American Constitution, where it sets forth a few basic principles and then you have constitutional law that builds up around it, creating certain precedents. Of course, we’re not quite sure how that’s going to be done either.

I think if there’s any one area I would look at that’s critical, I would say it’s the issue of private property rights. If you have a legal regime like in the United States, where private property is not only allowed, but it’s more or less central to society, then you have a certain kind of civilization. If you have a regime in which private property is not allowed, you have a very different society.

It appears to me, in reading about the outer space treaty, this is where the arguments are, quite a lot of the uncertainties are, the language is not totally clear, there’s a lot of interpretation. I think resolving that either through the treaty or in practice is going to be critical to how we evolve as we move out away from the Earth and into the solar system.

Heidi:  What is your opinion of the treatment of space as the new “high ground” for militaries worldwide?

Frank White:  I’m very concerned about that. I think you’re probably like me. You’ve probably been in the space field for a long time. One of the things that attracted me to space exploration as a field of study, was the idea that we could behave differently. We could start anew after we leave the earth.

One of the ways of starting anew would be to leave behind national rivalries. National militaries are a representation of those rivalries.

If you’re thinking about a more global approach, a more collaborative approach to opening up and developing the solar system, military competition more or less goes against that expectation.

I’m not against military being there. I think with the right policies, the military can be very important. Military people are really good at operating in hostile and difficult environments. They could be extremely helpful in whatever we want to do out there. But if they’re actually competing with one another, then it may be counter to the idea of a peaceful exploration and development of the solar system.

The last thing I would say is that I don’t think the military people themselves, the soldiers and members of the space force, if that comes to pass, it’s not really up to them. They’ll follow a policy set by their leaders. It’s more a question in how the political leaders choose to use their military forces and what is their expectation of what they’re going to do there?

Heidi:  Would private space industries be the answer to concerns about militarization?

Frank White:  No, I don’t think they’re the answer. You know, I think that the more we see private entities out there in the solar system, the more they’re going to be concerned about security and the more they’re going to be maybe wanting military presence in the solar system to help them protect their assets. I don’t think it’s an answer to the question. I think that the answer to the question of military presence is going to be settled more in the government domain than in the private enterprise domain.

Heidi:  How do you think space should be utilized instead?

Frank White:  What interests me is an idea that I proposed in my first book and I’ve continued to propose in my current book. The first book being The Overview Effect, the current book being The Cosma Hypothesis. I came to the conclusion back in 1987, when I wrote that first book, that space exploration was really a mission for the planet, not for the nations of the planet alone. Each nation can play a role, but I’d like to see some coordinating body, which I call the Human Space Program, I’d like to see something like that in existence that would set the tone for what I call a central project for all of humanity, which is exploring the solar system at first and then the universe.

I’d like to see us all come together around that mission and it’s a long-term plan. It’s not something we’ll do it in 10 years and then we’re done. In my first book, I proposed it happen throughout this millennium, from 2000 to 3000. That is the way I’d like to see the exploration and development of outer space.

The other aspect of it that’s tremendously important, and that is that we don’t think of it as leaving Earth behind. Earth has to be a part of this vision and I hope that when we think about the Human Space Program, we don’t leave the earth out.

And it shouldn’t be left out, because really, Heidi, you know, we’re already in space. We can’t really be anywhere else but in space. So, the Human Space Program, or any space program, definitely includes the earth. That’s the kind of future evolution that I’m trying to support.

Heidi: What do you think humans should do when and if we encounter extraterrestrial life?

Frank White:  Okay. Yeah, the chat stream works. So, the question about extraterrestrial life is a broad one because first of all, I think we’re going to have a very different response to primitive extraterrestrial life. For example, if we’re trying to start a settlement on Mars and we discovered there was primitive life there, perhaps in underground water or something like that, well, that would be one kind of a situation.

As you may know, I know you’re interested in Mars, Carl Sagan famously said that if we discovered primitive life on Mars, we should make it off limits to humans. He was proposing a kind of prime directive for how we treat extraterrestrial life. I’m sure Elon Musk wouldn’t agree with that, or the people who started Mars 1, wouldn’t agree with that.

We would have to work out some sort of accommodation so that humans and primitive life could coexist on Mars.

On the other hand, if we discovered or were in contact with advanced extraterrestrial life and even intelligence communicating with us, that’s a completely different story. There, the concern is not so much what we would do to them, but what they could do to us. When I say what they could do to us, I don’t mean physically or attacking us, but we have to be ready because it could be quite traumatic to find out we’re not the most advanced life form in the solar system or the galaxy or even in the universe. Humans are used to thinking of ourselves as being, you know, the top of the food chain. It could be quite dramatic on its impact on us if we encounter intelligences that are equal to or superior to us.

They could be very beneficial in their own minds, so they might share knowledge with us that would make all of our computer technology obsolete. They might feel like, “Hey, Heidi, here’s this advanced artificial intelligence system. It’s going to change your life for the better,” and they won’t think about the fact that it’s going to put IBM out of business and our economy just goes completely crashing, you know?

That happened in the earth’s terrestrial situation where missionaries came from Europe to North America and South America and I think they had good intentions, but they pretty much wrecked the indigenous people’s society, largely because of telling them that their religion was no longer acceptable.

We have to get ready. I wrote a book about the search for extraterrestrial intelligence back in 1990 and I said in that book, we have to get ready for contact. The more we think about it, the more we have conversations like the one you and I are having, the more prepared we’ll be. If we’re prepared, it doesn’t have to be a trauma, it can be a blessing.

There are a lot of movies being made about contact and that’s a good thing because in some cases, the movies are very positive in the outcome and they show ways in which we could greet intelligent life without fear, but as collaborators and as entities we can work with.

Heidi:  If you had the chance to join a space colony, would you? Why or why not?

Frank White:  Well, I would. One thing I tried to do is no longer use the word colony because colonial past on the earth has negative connotations, but that’s just the terminology. I know what you mean. Let’s call it a space settlement. Of course, I would go, I would say yes. The reason is, I feel like that’s what I’ve been preparing to do all my life.

My first cousin, who knows me very well from childhood, she said when I was a little kid, maybe four years old, five years old, I used to tell her that humanity could no longer stay on Earth, we were going to have to leave the earth and go live on other planets. [Laughs] That’s what I was thinking when I was four or five years old. I was getting ready to go.

I just feel like I’m destined for that. I prepared my whole life for that. I’m not just interested in writing about it and thinking about it and talking about it, I’m really interested in being part of this great adventure. I don’t know if I’ll make it or not. It’s a matter of how rapidly these things happen and how rapidly I will age, but given the chance, that would be my dream come true.

There’s a National Geographic article online somewhere, you can find it, I’m sure, about an explorer gene. There’s some evidence that there’s a gene in humans that makes people more likely to take risks and to explore. It doesn’t just mean exploring outer space. It could mean being a medical researcher or getting involved in extreme sports or something like that.

The idea in this article is, I think something like 20% of the population is estimated to have this genetic predisposition toward exploration and risk taking and it’s also the case that the gene doesn’t really get expressed if the person doesn’t live in a society that is supportive of exploration. It doesn’t work all the time unless it’s an environment that’s supportive.

But if there is such a gene, I think I have it. I think you have it. I mean, if you applied to Mars One, you’ve got to have it, I think.

Yeah, I mean, I’ve always liked exploring ideas and going to new places and doing new things. If I had the opportunity, I would definitely do that and, you know, I think it would be a peak experience for me.

Heidi:  What would your ideal space colony look like?

Frank White:  Well, back in the 1970s and 1980s, the way I got started on my current path in space was through Gerard K. O’Neill’s Space Studies Institute that was in Princeton, New Jersey. As you may know, that kind of space colony or space settlement, first of all, had a strong environmental component. It wasn’t on a planetary surface and I liked that because I’m very concerned with Mars. I’m very concerned with the human impact on the planet and the whole idea of the O’Neill settlement was to build it in free space, to use solar energy. Of course, O’Neill also had the idea of moving heavy industry off of the earth and that would be part of his plan.

I would start out by saying that idea appeals to me in terms of the physical configuration of it.

Also, they imagined a number around 5-10,000 people. O’Neill was very enamored of kind of small town government and he was very enamored of real democracy and representation on a small scale. I think that would be an ideal of mine.

The other thing is, I would want it to be a diverse representation of Earth’s population. There was a movie called Elysium that really portrayed the O’Neill space settlement concept in a negative way because the settlement became like a gated community and the vast majority of people were left on an earth that was going downhill fast, in terms of poverty, environmental degradation, and a lot of negative developments. Whereas wealthy, privileged people were living on Elysium and they were keeping anybody from Earth away.

The other part of it was they had this great medical care, almost like bringing people back from the brink of death and they didn’t want anybody else to have that. That would not be my ideal. I do not want to live like that. I don’t want to be separate from the vast majority of the human species. That would be important to me.

I think the whole idea of leaving the earth behind is anathema to me. As you may know, I’ve interviewed 31 astronauts directly and asked them about their experience. There was no astronaut I talked to who said “Well, what I got from being out there is we should just go out there and leave the earth behind.” Every astronaut I’ve interviewed has come to appreciate our home planet much more directly and much more emotionally and caring much more about preserving Mother Earth or Spaceship Earth, depending on what metaphor you like.

That would be important to me and I’d be one of those settlers who was always bringing the debates and conversations about policy back to benefiting the people of Earth and the life of Earth.

We can’t forget, this is not all just for humans. We have a diverse life, ecological set of life forms on the earth. It’s all interconnected, interwoven, and we have to look out for all these other life forms as well.

Heidi:  Okay. Well, that’s all the questions I have. Anything you’d like to add?

Frank White:  Well, I would only add, Heidi, that I think these conversations are super important. I don’t think the vast majority of people on Earth really understand the critical moment that we’re facing right now. We are actually making decisions, as you know. We are making decisions that are going to affect the future and many people think space exploration is science fiction, but it’s not. It’s really science fact right now and it’s not just about science, it’s about humanity.

I, personally, am very concerned that 500 years from now, my descendants will look back on this moment and they’ll say, “Frank White didn’t do his best to create a better civilization in outer space than we had on Earth,” and that my colleagues and I will be acknowledged for helping to get humanity off the planet but will be judged for how we did it and how we had an impact on the solar system. I want that judgment to be positive.

I’m trying to sound the alarm and involve everybody in this great adventure.

Heidi:  Okay, awesome. Thank you very much.

Frank White:  Thanks a lot. It was great talking to you.