The Overview Effect: Astronauts' Unique View of the Earth and What We All Can Learn from It

Written by Frank White.

This document reflects remarks prepared by Frank White, author of The Overview Effect and cofounder of the Overview Institute, for delivery at the world premiere of the Planetary Collective film, "Overview." The event was sponsored by the Harvard Extension School’s "Freethink@Harvard" series and hosted by Harvard’s Graduate School of Education on December 7, 2012.

Good evening everyone, and welcome to this special event, "The Overview Effect: Astronauts’ Unique View of the Earth and What We All Can Learn from it."

My name is Frank White. I am author of The Overview Effect: Space Exploration and Human Evolution and co-founder of the Overview Institute. I am pleased to say that I am also a graduate of Harvard College, and have numerous affiliations with the University, including serving as an instructor in the Harvard Extension School, our primary sponsor tonight. I want to express my deepest appreciation to Rob Neugeboren, Liz Thurston, and the entire team of people who have worked tirelessly to put on this event.

If I may speak personally for a moment, this event brings together two of my greatest passions other than my family and my wife Donna, who was unfortunately unable to be here tonight. Those two are space exploration and Harvard University. I have been trying to bring them closer together for 25 years, and tonight is very special to me for that reason.

Now, I want to talk very briefly with you about the history of the Overview Effect as an idea.

As you will see in the film, the concept of the Overview Effect came to me on a cross-country flight in the late 1970s. The book by the same name was published in November 1987 and has just marked its 25th anniversary. And now, the idea is encompassed in a film called "Overview," which has its world premiere tonight.

Now, the Overview Effect is not about me, or our panel members, or any one individual. It is about all of us as human beings. The Overview Effect is a message from the universe to us about who we really are and what our future is really all about.

As Yuri Gagarin, the first human being to go into orbit, said of his 1961 flight:

"The point was not the distance, but the principle…Man [Humanity] had overcome the force of Earth's gravity and gone out into space." (1)

And as Apollo astronaut Rusty Schweickart said of his experience:

"You’re out there on the forefront and you have to bring that back somehow. That becomes a rather special responsibility and it tells you something about your relationship with this thing we call life. And all through this I’ve used the word you because it’s not me…it’s you, it’s we. It’s Life that’s had that experience." (2)

This message was first passed to the astronauts, and then passed to many others, including myself, who have been working to interpret it, and now to the filmmakers at Planetary Collective, and we are now passing it to you.

It is a complex message that includes several components.

Let me just say a few things about that message:

First, it is true that there are no borders or boundaries on our planet except those that we create in our minds or through human behaviors. All the ideas and concepts that divide us when we are on the surface begin to fade from orbit and the moon. The result is a shift in worldview, and in identity.

Second our planet is, in the words of panelist Ron Garan, a fragile oasis and we need to take care of it.  So there is a strong environmental component to the message.

Third is that we are one species with one destiny as we move out from the Earth and begin to explore the universe.

Finally, we need to understand that the Overview Effect is not only about seeing the Earth from space but, as my colleague David Beaver likes to point out, also seeing it in space. We are in space, we have always been in space, and we always will be in space, whether we leave the planet or not. In a very real sense, all of us are astronauts, members of the crew of spaceship Earth, and the time has come to realize that this is so.

As David also has noted, there is a difference between the experience and the communication of the experience, which is something we will discuss tonight. If the medium is the message, then we must work to improve the media that will transmit this message.

You know, as we were preparing for this event, and people were anticipating its impact, it occurred to me that the Mayan calendar might be off by a couple of weeks, and the "end of the world" might be taking place tonight. (The exits are to your right and left in the back of the hall, incidentally.) But seriously, I don’t think the world will literally end tonight. However, I believe that, once you see this film and hear our panel speak, it may mark the end of your "worldview."

That is the Overview Effect, and that is what the film "Overview" is trying to convey.

Thank you for coming tonight. Let me now introduce Guy Reid, director of the film.


(1)            White, F., The Overview Effect: Space Exploration and Human Evolution, AIAA, Reston, VA, 1998, p. 179. (Originally published in Survival in Space, Gagarin, Y. and Lebedev, V., Frederick Praeger, New York, 1969.)

(2)            White, The Overview Effect, p. 13 (Originally in Earth’s Answer: Explorations of Planetary Culture at the Lindisfarne Conferences West Stockbridge, MA, Lindisfarne/Harper & Row, 1977.