Seeing the Earth from the Moon: The Impact of the Overview Effect

July 12, 2009 at 8:30 am by Frank White
Tags: 40th anniversary of moon landing, Apollo 11, the Overview Effect

Most space exploration advocates are disappointed that the United States did not pursue a more assertive space policy after Apollo 11. I can understand that, and I have some of the same feelings. In 1969, many of us could reasonably imagine that we might eventually have the option of living off the Earth, if we chose to do so. Forty years later, that original dream has become a distant memory, though most of us haven't given up on it, even now.

However, I have come to believe that there may have been a subconscious reason for stopping at the moon: the impact of seeing the Earth from that perspective and experiencing a new, more powerful version of the Overview Effect. In my mind, the Apollo 8 mission, which took place in December 2008, represented the first moment when many of the inhabitants of the Earth saw the planet as a shining jewel suspended against a backdrop of stars, with the dark universe beyond. The Apollo 11 mission reinforced the experience, as we watched Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin, live on TV, working on the lunar surface with the Earth hanging in the sky above them. One poet wrote about it at the time, asking the question of the Earth, "What are you doing in the sky?" It was a change in viewpoint that is difficult to grasp even now.

Is it possible, then, that humanity, as a species, realized that we were not ready, in the early 1970s, to leave our planet of origin and venture out into the solar system? Did we somehow understand that, for our future solar civilization to be successful, our emerging terrestrial civilization needed to be more stable and mature? Did we determine, without saying it, that we needed to understand the message of the Overview Effect more fully?

In the words of shuttle astronaut Joe Allen, "With all the arguments, pro and con, for going to the moon, no one suggested that we should do it to look at the Earth. But that may in fact have been the most important reason." (The Overview Effect, AIAA, 1998, p.215)

I am not one of those who believes that we should perfect our terrestrial civilization before moving out into the solar system. If we do that, we will never leave the planet. However, I do think that a stable global civilization with a clear vision of its evolutionary future offers the firmest possible foundation for future exploration. Regardless of the conscious or subconscious reasons that we stopped at the moon after Apollo, we have now had 40 years to become more environmentally conscious, to reduce the threat of nuclear war, and to understand the larger meaning of human evolution into the universe.

As we approach the 40th anniversary of the Apollo 11 landing, perhaps we should celebrate it not only by looking back but also by looking forward. Perhaps we should engage in a much deeper dialogue about what that moment on July 20, 1969 meant and why the past four decades have unfolded as they have. Perhaps the story we have told ourselves these many years is missing some important elements.

I will continue this line of thought in my next post.

Frank White