Why Go to Space At All?

Written by Alex Howerton.

Part I: The Vision

Adapted from the book Free Space — Real Alternatives for Reaching Outer Space, Loompanics, 1995

Space exploration and development is exciting! It is easy to become absorbed in the details, the discoveries, the adventure, and forget why we began such a quest in the first place. If we are ever to become a spacefaring civilization, it is imperative to understand the minutiae, the nuts and bolts of how it is done. It is, however, no less important to examine why we human beings want to go, what we intend to accomplish, what our hopes and dreams are upon achieving our goals.

I embarked on my quest to fulfill a personal vision. I have, from my earliest memories, loved the idea of space explortion and development. I have always marveled at science fiction, and in eighth-grade science class, where I was racking up a solid C average, I achieved A pluses for the two weeks we concentrated on my favorite topic.

As I grew into adulthood, other interests absorbed me, and space studies slid to the back burner. Then, in 1983, I participated in a seminar entitled "2013: the World 30 Years from Now." The task on the first day of the seminar was to envision the state of the world in that future time. On the second day, we had to figure out how to bring it about.

With a fellow attendee, I was assigned to go into a darkened room, close my eyes, and relate my vision of the future. Once I had done so, a fully-articulated vision leapt into my imagination. I saw a re-greened Earth, dedicated to agriculture and environmental parks. There were perhaps six large cities on the whole planet, mainly distribution and collection centers for the solar system’s economy. The cities were built downward, into the Earth, with no eye-jarring artificial structures to assail the senses. Ground transportation was achieved by means of magnetic strips between destinations. Vehicles were encoded with their destinations, much like bar-coding, then glided along at tremendous speeds. Since every vehicle was locked onto the strips and traveling at uniform speed, there were no accidents. Power was provided by clean-burning hydrogen fusion and solar power satellites.

My mind then flew to the omon. It was one massive industrial park. Every conceivable industry was represented and allowed to prosper in a free and open market. The goods and services produced there were shipped all over the solar system. The moon’s far side was reserved for pure science and astronomy.

I saw great ships plying the pathways of the solar system, visiting the settlements of Mars and beyond, bringing back valuable resources from the nether regions, enriching everyone. Beautiful pleasure yachts powered by solar sail gracefully wandered about the spatial sea.  Huge free-floating space resorts supplied every kind of diversion, from flying under one's own power, to all kinds of space sports, to discreetly-appointed zero-g love nests.

The outer worlds of Europa, Titan, and others were being explored for organic matter and even life, while tiny robots of nano-technological origin set about terraforming the worlds where no life previously existed, yet which would be useful to humanity.

A great power generator was in full operation around stately Jupiter, producing energy from Io's interaction with the planet’s magnetosphere. Automated probes with the most advanced hydrogen-scoop and antimatter engines were forging their way to the nearest stellar neighbors to initiate a first reconnaissance. The whole neighborhood of the Sun was bustling and thriving with human activity.

I had not heard of the Overview Effect when I experienced that vision -- indeed, Frank White had not yet written the book with that title. But in retrospect, I think I did have a proto "Overview Effect" moment at that seminar. That is why, once I finally read the book, the idea resonated so deeply within me. In fact, my vision is quite compatible with another idea that Frank introduced in the book, which was the realization by some astronauts that the Earth is not only a whole system but is also an integral part of a larger whole system, i.e., the solar system.

The Overview Effect is the unifying principle that gives a sense of unity and purpose to our current seemingly chaotic cultural state. In chaos theory, order seems to break down at an increasing rate, until a strange attractor enters the picture, and a new dynamic equilibrium is achieved. The idea of the Overview Effect is just such a "strange attractor."

The current news about SpaceX’s successful resupply mission to the International Space Station and the announcement by Planetary Resources of the intention to mine an asteroid may seem to most people to have come out of the blue, but these ideas have been percolating for many years, even decades, and are now emerging, just when they apparently seem to be needed the most.

We are witnessing and participating in the birth of cosmic consciousness, not just as an abstract idea, but as a practical program of action, an alternative to the standard methods of global problem-solving. This is the true power of the Overview Effect, and I am proud that my vision of three decades ago has now found a home with the Overview Institute.