Articles tagged with: space travel

Metaphor, Myth and Meaning: Reflections on Rereading The Overview Effect, Part III

Written by Reflections on Rereading The Overview Effect, Part 1 on Tuesday, 21 January 2014. Posted in Overview Effect

In Chapter 3, “An Overview of the Spaceflight Experience,” White discusses metaphor as a method used by the astronauts to attempt to explain their spaceflight experiences. Launching from the ideas of Julian Jaynes in his book The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind, White concludes that “one result of space exploration is that language will grow as spaceflight is described more frequently.”

White is spot on here. Metaphor is powerful. It is a way for the human mind to strive to express something that cannot be grasped directly, either by the speaker or the listener. In essence, it creates reality by indicating a relationship that was hitherto unrecognized, or even existent. Spaceflight, for example, is a raw experience, but what does it mean? Like all life experiences, it does not have one meaning for all time, but changes in context over time and with different astronauts. White makes the point that “memory of it [the spaceflight experience] acts as a time-release capsule, emitting feelings, insights, thoughts, and ideas over the years after it has occurred.”

White then goes on to describe the active legend-building that orbited the early astronauts. “Societies need heroes who are specially selected to undergo hardship and danger on the frontiers of civilization. Space is today’s frontier, and the astronauts and cosmonauts have become today’s heroes, people who have extraordinary experiences unknown to others in the society, doing something that requires uncommon bravery.”

Deeds are the germ of legend, and legend is the fount of myth. And metaphor is the language of myth. We moderns hear ancient myths, and instantly think “how preposterous,” or “how quaint.” We have even morphed the word “myth” to be synonymous, in some contexts, with “lie”. We constantly feel the need to debunk or bust myths, as if they are some insidious plague of which we must rid ourselves. But that is because we are losing our sense of metaphor, and what it is trying to do in helping shape our reality, and give it meaning.

While we are eschewing myth in one sphere, we are actively building it in another. The early astronauts were indeed our heroes, the strong-willed warriors with “The Right Stuff” who would battle the Cold War by proxy. Even the very name “astronaut” is an evocative metaphor – “sailor of the stars.”

But the context of myth changes over time, and the metaphor which once served so well has now fallen into disrepute. Those noble heroes of that bygone era, the “Space Age,” are now one more relic of the Military Industrial Complex. We don’t need fighter pilots in space anymore – the nature of conflict has changed, and the anticipated space war is probably not going to happen any time soon. We have even gone so far in our popular culture as to parody that “right stuff” mythos in movies like Armageddon and Space Cowboys. Many view the early space program as a dead end, and now say things like “Why go to space until we solve all our problems here on Earth first? The space program is just an elitist escapist fantasy that can do nothing to help the planet.”

But that is the result of our modern myth-busting proclivities. Just because the cultural terrain has shifted does not diminish the accomplishments or worth of those early space explorers, those heroes. The valuable and worthy activity now is to actively engage with our space explorers, to interact with them to reach for new, fresh metaphors that transform our understanding of space from something to conquer to viewing it more as an extension of our environment, which is precisely what it is. The role of the space explorers has transformed from conquering heroes to dedicated, focused achievers of missions, precisely the same shift in dynamics we have seen in many frontier contexts. This in no way diminishes the stature of the early space pioneers, but rather places them in the mythic context of blazing the trail and making it possible for more of us to go, when the opportunities present themselves.

White then goes on to ask whether spaceflight is a spiritual experience. “Spiritual” is now one of those loaded words in our culture, along with “religion” and God” that mean something different to just about everybody who uses them, and are subject to our myth-busting propensities. But space exploration definitely does have an effect on humans that take us beyond our normal context. The renowned mythologist Joseph Campbell discussed the transformative power of metaphor to reach for deeper insights in his book The Flight of the Wild Gander. He tells us that the philosopher Immanuel Kant “offers a four-term analogy (“a” is to “b” as “c” is to “x”), which points not to an incomplete resemblance of two things but to a complete resemblance of two relationships between quite dissimilar things…. Mythological, theological, metaphysical analogies, in other words, do not point indirectly to an only partially understood knowable term, but directly to a relationship between to terms, the one empirical, the other metaphysical; the latter being, absolutely and forever and from every conceivable human standpoint, unknowable.”

Space is that inconceivable unknowable metaphysical condition, that astronauts have experienced directly, albeit from their limited human perspectives, and are continually reaching to find the right metaphors, the right Kantian relationship, to express to the rest of us, to give us a sense, as White points out, of what is was like. That metaphysical reality can never be fully apprehended or understood by even those who experienced it. The astronauts need us as much as we need them, so we can mutually push our communal language to find new metaphors, new ways to understand and communicate that ultimately ineffable experience.

That experience definitely has a spiritual quality to it, in that it compels all of us, the astronauts and the ground observers, to reach beyond ordinarily-experienced reality to a metaphysical sense of participating in something greater than ourselves. As White points out, for some astronauts, that translated into achieving the goals of the mission to the best of their ability, with no attention paid to what is commonly considered “spiritual.” Yet the challenge of the experience called to the fore that response from those individuals which would otherwise not have come to fruition. Space calls out the best in us, and it is our constant challenge to grapple with the shortcomings of our language to strive to create new metaphors which can lead us to a greater sense of context, meaning and myth, as we struggle to understand our place in the universe.

 

A Fish Out of Water: Reflections on Rereading the Overview Effect, Part II

Written by Alex Howerton on Wednesday, 10 October 2012.

In the first chapters of The Overview Effect, Frank White challenges us earthbound fish to jump out of our habitual perspective. That is the analogy he uses, along the lines of classic explanation of 4 dimensions to us by imagining a 2-dimensional creature encountering a 3-dimensional world. A fish flopping onto land, if he could survive it, would have a hard time comprehending what he was experiencing, and even harder time communicating that experience to other fishes once he reentered the water.

White does not push the analogy further, but I will. At the very least, the other fish might call the transformative fish crazy. No one likes their worldview challenged. At worst, they might crucify him or martyr him in some other way. Throughout history, humans have proven that they are more likely to solve their cognitive dissonance by denying or repudiating new factual evidence than doing the hard, often painful work of modifying their worldview to accommodate a new reality. Exhibits: Socrates. Jesus. Hypatia of Alexandria. Giordano Bruno. Galileo. Darwin. Climate change scientists. I think you get my point.

But over time, that which was once highly controversial becomes accepted. No one seriously disputes anymore, for example, that the Earth revolves around the Sun, or that the solar system is located in an obscure arm of the Milky Way Galaxy. Nothing of the physical layout of the universe has changed. But a very fundamental change has happened in the universe – our perception of it. Even more important than that is our ability to communicate that change with each other, to share the experience of change. As White says, “A shared context is critical for real communication to take place, because without it, what is meaningful to one person may be nonsense to another.”

We fish are currently struggling to maintain our worldviews in the face of an onslaught of new information and stimuli. The normal human reaction is to dig in and double down. “I’m right, and so by definition everybody else who disagrees is wrong.” We have seen the results of what that type of thinking leads to (Americans are no less culpable in this regard).

What is needed to break the logjam is the new physical perspective that the Overview Effect offers. Such a jarring “fish out of water” experience may be too much for some to handle, and we have to be prepared for that. But for most of us, I suspect, it would be a positively transformative experience, one that would take many years, if not a lifetime, to assimilate and express in new cultural forms.

Even the way we experience transformation may be transformed. It is common to hear statements like, “When I contemplate the immensity of the stars, the galaxies, the universe, I realize how insignificant I am.” If that is true, why then do you not feel correspondingly omnipotent when contemplating cells, molecules, atoms, and quarks? Often such contemplation leads to a similar feeling of insignificance. Why? Because those scales are out of our control, outside of our carefully constructed worldview. But consider this – who is doing the contemplating? How is it that a mass of biomatter can come to perceive scales from quasars to quarks, and have some measure of control over it, at least locally? That is amazing all by itself. We are a legitimate part of the universe, and belong in it, and we have to understand things on a human scale.

One of the beauties of the Overview Effect is that it can broaden that “human scale” to encompass so much more, so we are not shocked into insignificance or incapacity when faced with realities far beyond our current comprehension. We fishes can help each other to comprehend this majestic, magnificent universe we find ourselves in, and strive to become more than fishes, without ever losing our essential “fishness.”

White says, “Our ‘worldview’ as a conceptual framework depends quite literally on our view of the world from a physical place in the universe.” We will always be human. We will always be constrained by the physical limitations that that implies. But that does not mean that what we think are our limitations now are the actual limitations. We will never discover those limits unless we push the boundaries, then communicate with each other, rationally, artistically or otherwise, the new parameters of what it means to be human. That is the gift that the Overview Effect can give all of us.

In Space Companies, “No One Can Hear You Yawn”

Written by David Beaver on Tuesday, 26 June 2012. Posted in Overview Effect, Space Tourism

Amazing NewSpace Events Get Brief Media and a “Yawn”

The recent milestone accomplishment of a delivery of cargo to the International Space Station by Elon Musk’s SpaceX was, in the eyes of the space community, a Game Changer.  Because it was the first U.S. launched delivery to the ISS since the end of the Shuttle program and the first by a private space company, it was widely covered by the national media. 

Within a week however, this landmark event, which a number of space leaders suggested may be seen by history as the beginning of a Second Space Age, was submerged in the usual mix of media.  Even its place as the leading space story was quickly overtaken by the Transit of Venus.

In my last post, commenting on the Planetary Resources press conference that announced their plan to Mine the Asteroids (remember that?), I focused on the curious disconnect between the scale and scope of their Mission (heavy team credentials, deep pockets, space expertise and huge upside) and the tepid and the even shorter-lived response from the mainstream media.

A few days later, Will Oremus at Slate.com had this to say:

“How did the tech world respond? It yawned, rolled over, and returned to its collective dream aboutthe next hot social-media startup. My message to the tech world: Wake up! This is outer space we’re talking about! This is awesome!”

A Lack of “Space Awareness”

From the lack of enthusiasm for the incredible vision of the Planetary Resources announcement (perhaps because it seemed in-credible) to the apparent failure to grasp the implications of the historic accomplishment of SpaceX, we are witnessing the hugely diminished space-awareness of our present culture, an awareness that began to fade immediately following the abrupt end of the Apollo Program. 

While the SpaceX story gained more and longer coverage, there was clearly no cultural grasp of the unique significance of these accomplishments and plans, let alone the vision behind it, which is rapidly moving us toward a new and far more robust Space Age than even the remarkable accomplishments of Apollo

The public, distracted by numerous current issues and interests will be hard to move out of its prevalent perception that space “belongs” to Science and national government programs. 

It’s entirely likely that cautious and technically sophisticated NewSpace companies, headed by experienced entrepreneurs will undoubtedly make sustained, profitable progress.  But lacking Apollo Era space awareness by the public, Congress, and Wall Street, the explosive growth of a new Space Age that space leaders and enthusiasts envision may not happen nearly as rapidly as they imagine.  Because, apparently, in space companies, “no one can hear you yawn.”

The Historic Roots of our Current Lack of Space Awareness

Apollo originally included three more moon landings and the follow-on development of a compact space plane to carry astronauts to orbit (the “X-Plane” Program) allowing the massive Saturn 5 or subsequent heavy lifter to carry cargo.  Combining the two in the Shuttle was thus a bad political/economic compromise between the smaller, an inherently safer space plane and an unmanned cargo lifter, a fact that the previous NASA Director admitted some years ago

(It is ironic but not coincidental that all NewSpace orbital and suborbital crew vehicles are either reversions to the earlier capsule design or a jump to the astronaut-only space plane design, not seen in fully operational form since the legendary X-15 Program was canceled in 1968. Eight X-15 pilots actually received astronaut wings.)

With the Challenger disaster just five years into the Shuttle Program, the nearly three year wait till resumption of flights and the Moon Race over, the public’s waning sense that NASA was birthing the Space Agewas quickly replaced as the world’s premier technology icon by the rapidly advancing personal computer that birthed the Information Age.

Space Science Fiction in Decline

Not coincidentally, the mid-80’s saw the shift in science fiction from space to the rise of the “Cyberpunk”Science Fiction genera with its computer/internet themes.  The increasingly realistic and sophisticated space science fiction of the 1950’s has long been cited by both cultural and NASA historians as a precursor to public acceptance of the reality of space travel. 

By century’s end, the new computer and Internet driven themes were ubiquitous in movies and TV, while only the iconic Star Trek franchise remained until 2005, when Star Trek Enterprise ended.  Perhaps it’s only serious analogue had been Babylon 5, which lasted five years and ended in 2000.  From the 80’s on Space SF was eclipsed by Cyberpunk and today both are outsold 3 to 1 by fantasy (i.e. Lord of the Rings, Twilight, etc.).

Between the historic loss of focus on the Space Program and the paucity of coverage of the NewSpace industry, reinforced by the lack of current space science fiction (especially any based on the near future plans of the NewSpace industry); there is now a profound lack of current public space awareness.

Instead, there is a default assumption of the primacy of computer-based technology and business.  Indeed, unless you put a qualifier up front (i.e. drug, aerospace, solar, etc.) the frequent assumption when using the word “technology” today is that you are referring to Computer (or Internet) Technology.

Despite growing NewSpace achievements, while they will undoubtedly be cheered by the community of space enthusiasts, without the kind of cultural and media “groundwork” that seeded space awareness for the early U.S. Space Program, it is entirely likely that the tech community, and the computer/Internet culture it has created, will continue to “yawn”. 

The Agenda of the Overview Institute

The Overview Institute was created to research and focus attention on the World View shifting impact of space awareness.  While, as I have previously written, this does highlight a “Third Case” for human space travel (in addition to Science/Exploration and Commercial Development) it is not specifically a polemic for space travel itself, but for the World View that it tends to engender.

The fact that such a World View already exists, and that pre-Space Age observers such as astronomer Fred Hoyleand even Socrates have predicted that such a perspective would tend to engender such a World View shift, supports the conclusion that space travel itself is not absolutely necessary to grasp the Overview Effect.

In fact, there are many such predictions of the positive value of adopting an “Overview” perspective of the Earth sprinkled through history from ancient to modern times.  For a good summary of these historic observations see British Historian Robert Poole’s enlightening book on the historic and modern impact of Earth images and visualizations, Earthrise.

However, this long history of such statements by prominent figures also support the conclusion that such a shift is difficult to create simply through words.  On the other hand, the sudden and rapid World View shifts attributable to the astronaut’s firsthand accounts and visual records indicates that space travel and its socially transmitted Overview Effect is an especially powerful driver for shifting World Views.

A Second Way of Communicating the Overview Effect

Parallel to the accelerating rise of space travel technology is the equally rapid increase in advanced simulation media technology, from increasingly high rez, high frame/rate projection systems to 3D, Virtual Reality and a host of related immersive media tools. 

These new media technologies (enabled by the intervening Computer Revolution) allow art, entertainment and education creators to immerse audiences in experiences of unprecedented reality and presence, a sense of immersion and presence unavailable during the first Space Age.

This will allow the space perspective to be extended to hundreds of millions of citizens who will never see space themselves, extending and amplifying the World View shifting effect to the entire population.  However, this also requires an appreciation for the need for such content.

The Role of the Overview Institute

There is one additional caveat.  If these high-tech creations are based only on existing space images, which themselves have been limited by prior technologies and perspective, they are more likely to reinforce current marginalizing or misunderstanding of the Overview Effect, already widespread, even in the space community.

The Overview Institute therefore, is dedicated to bringing as clear and detailed account of the experiences of the astronauts and the coming wave of “Citizen Astronauts.” 

By building on first-hand accounts and supported by the best modern science of perception and the impact of media on the mind, these new space media experiences will produce previously unavailable levels of immersion in the World View-shifting experience of space travel. 

Such new space media experiences, rooted in and validated by the firsthand accounts of space travelers, will communicate a powerful “taste” of the World View shifting nature of the Overview Effect, and produce far, far more than a “Yawn”.  Indeed, as both astronauts and eminent cultural observers have predicted, the Overview Effect of space will soon become one of the dominant forces in shaping our world in the coming decade and beyond.  

Apollo, the Dragon, and the Overview Effect

Written by Frank White on Monday, 28 May 2012. Posted in Overview Effect, Space Tourism

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.