The Overview Effect and the Human Space Program: Part II

Written by Frank White.

In The Overview Effect: Space Exploration and Human Evolution, I envisioned a millennium-long “central project” for all of humanity that would engage our best efforts in the great adventure of exploring the universe. It was called “the Human Space Program,” to distinguish it from national space programs. The idea was consistent with, and flowed from, the concept of the Overview Effect.

That is because the experience of the Overview Effect not only shows us that we need to work together more effectively on the Earth but also that we ought to work as the “human team” as we move out into the solar system and beyond.

The Human Space Program would be the sum total of all human efforts to understand and explore our larger environment beyond the Earth’s atmosphere. Most immediately, that more expansive environment is the solar system. Considering the fact that the International Space Station has now been inhabited for 10 straight years, we have traveled to the moon, and we are actively exploring Mars and other planets, solar system is already our new ecosystem.

Ideally, then, the Human Space Program would include astronomical observations, robotic probes to other planets, and human exploration of Low Earth Orbit, the moon, Mars, the rest of the solar system. The Human Space Program already exists in that sense, but is not yet fully aware of itself. It has not been named nor organized into a functioning project.

At this time, most of our government space programs are structured much as they were in the early years of the so-called “space race,” by nation-state.

According to Space News, by 2009, some 55 countries could boast a government space program of some kind, ranging from quite rudimentary capabilities to extremely robust infrastructures. This is 25 times the number that existed in the early 1960s, when the current Space Age began. Thus, we have added a new program every other year since then.

Depending on our perspective, we might see this proliferation of national space programs as a positive or negative development. On the one hand, it might be considered to be a continuation of the divisions we experience on Earth, which have been made obsolete as we have begun to experience the Overview Effect. After all, when we consider the immensity of the universe, it seems almost absurd that our exploration efforts would be divided up into these artificial constructs we call nations.

On the other hand, having all of these programs could be seen as a positive step forward in creating humanity’s spacefaring civilization. Altogether, these space programs are investing more than $36 billion dollars per year in the exploration of the universe.

We can also see these efforts in the context of my most recent book, The New Camelot, in which I argue that the true message of the Overview Effect is the value of diversity within the context of unity. In other words, national differences can be a positive factor, if they are contained within a unifying framework. By analogy, the Olympics are a unifying event, where the world comes together for two weeks of competition. The Games would not be nearly as exciting, however, if they lacked the cultural and national differences among the teams. These differences make the competition exciting and even informative, yet they are contained within a positive spirit of unity.

The key point is the degree of balance that exists within a system. At the moment, there is not enough balance between the unity of space exploration on a global basis and the diversity offered by the national programs.

At one extreme of the unity/diversity relationship, we have the International Space Station (ISS), a model of international cooperation only 230 miles from the surface of the Earth. Begun during the Reagan administration at the height of the Cold War, the ISS has been funded by five American presidents and a series of congresses, as well as the leaders of 14 other nations, including the Soviet Union, and now Russia. The ISS has been continuously occupied by human beings for more than a decade, and stands as a model of cooperation on the space frontier.

In addition, a group of countries is now working to fashion a global space program that would go beyond what each country can accomplish on its own.

In 2006, 14 space agencies began a dialogue on global interests in space exploration. Together they elaborated a vision for peaceful robotic and human space exploration, focusing on destinations within the solar system where humans may one day live and work.

This group has created a voluntary, nonbinding international coordination mechanism, the International Space Exploration Coordination Group (ISECG), through which individual agencies exchange information about their interests, objectives, and plans in space exploration. The national programs do not give up their freedom of action by being part of this group, but the ISECG creates the context of unity that is the essence of what the Overview Effect is all about. This is the closest thing to the Human Space Program as it was envisioned in 1987 that I have seen on the contemporary scene.

At the other extreme is the Chinese space program. China is not an ISS participant, but they are an ISECG member, which is a hopeful sign.  China recently published a five-year plan that includes building their own space station and establishing a moon base. The Chinese have made it clear that they intend to pursue an independent and self-sufficient path on the “high frontier,” while remaining “open” to international cooperation. So far, the United States has resisted allowing Chinese moves to trigger a new “space race,” which is a wise policy.

A good first step toward creating the Human Space Program would be for the ISECG to begin seeing itself as the Human Space Program and then launch a recruiting drive to bring the other 31 spacefaring nations within the fold.

What about military initiatives and commercial space development? Should they be seen as part of the Human Space Program? We will consider these questions in the third part of this series.