Curiosity Factor

Written by Frank White.

Now that our latest robot ambassador to Mars—“Curiosity”has survived its complex and risky landing, I am reminded of a stage of awareness resulting from space exploration that lies beyond the Overview Effect. In The Overview Effect: Space Exploration and Human Evolution, I dubbed this “the Copernican Perspective.” It is the realization that we are not only part of a whole system called Earth but that the Earth is also part of a whole system called the solar system.

As with the Overview Effect, the realization is experiential rather than intellectual. Of course, we understand that the Earth is part of the solar system and have known it at least since Copernicus and Kepler showed us their paradigm-shifting model, in which the Earth and planets revolve around the sun, rather than having the sun and planets revolve around the Earth.

However, an experience is more powerful than a concept, and as I wrote about the Apollo missions and early space station initiatives, such as Skylab, in the 1960s and 1970s:

It may be most important that the potential range of experiences on the frontier is beyond what was originally imagined. For some, there was certainly a sense of an overview, but for others, the results were more subtle and powerful.

We can see, for example, the outlines of the Copernican Perspective, a realization of the Earth's place in the solar system, and the Universal Insight, a realization of the Earth's place in the universe, appearing in the commentaries of these astronauts.

While no human beings have physically traveled to Mars as yet, all of us can travel there mentally through our robot friends, such as Curiosity, and its predecessors, Spirit and Opportunity, the two rovers that have been traveling over the Martian surface for several years now. The pictures sent back by these and other probes “institutionalize the experience of the Copernican Perspective in the same way that Earth-orbiting satellites institutionalized the experience of the Overview Effect.” (The Overview Effect)

One of the most interesting aspects of Curiosity’s voyage is the relatively high level of public interest in it. Contrary to conventional wisdom, it appears that human beings are able to get excited about robotic space exploration if they feel that they are able to participate in it. Is this perhaps the result of 50 years of growing space awareness, a subtle seeping into the culture of knowledge about the Overview Effect, and the creation of a global technosystem that allows all of us to virtually experience events that we cannot experience directly?

Of course, the day will inevitably arrive when the first person sets foot on Mars, and it may be sooner than we think. To paraphrase Neil Armstrong, it is going to be “One small step for a human being, one giant leap for humankind.”

Until then, Curiosity will have to satisfy our curiosity about the red planet.

It’s exciting to know that for the next few years, the “Curiosity Factor” will bring the Copernican Perspective home to all of us in a big way.