A New Paradigm for Space Exploration

February 02, 2010 at 8:50 am by Frank White
Tags: Citizens of the Universe, Human Space Program, the Overview Effect

President Obama has now made the most important decision of his presidency. That decision forges a new role for NASA and brings commercial space exploration and development to the forefront. Many people in the space community have already come out against the choices the president has made. There is likely to be a huge fight in Congress, especially because cancellation of the moon mission and the Constellation program means a huge loss of jobs at a time when we need all the employment we can get.

At the same time, there is much to admire in the new policy, not only the emphasis on involving the private sector but also the focus on international cooperation.  Many others will attack or defend the new paradigm on policy grounds, so I will add my thoughts with a different focus, i.e., why this is the central decision of this administration.

The analogy is clearly to President Kennedy's declaration that the United States would create the Apollo program and go to the moon. As many observers now agree, what we learned about the Earth as a result of Apollo was as crucial as what we learned about our satellite. The Overview Effect had been experienced in limited form before Apollo 8, but when the astronauts of that mission turned their cameras around to show us the whole Earth, a jolt went through our collective consciousness. For the first time ever, we clearly saw our home, our mother, the environment in which we were really living. The astronauts were in one spaceship, the rest of us were in another: as Buckminster Fuller put it, we were riding through the universe on "Spaceship Earth."

That was more than 40 years ago. What has followed is the environmental movement, globalization, and countless other changes in our planetary civilization. Perhaps most important is the awareness that we are actually part of a planetary civilization and are global citizens, like it or not.

Forty years from now, I suspect there will be shifts in human consciousness similar to what happened as a result of President Kennedy's decision. In 2050, someone will likely see President Obama's choices in a different light than we see it today. (First, this new paradigm has to get through Congress, of course.) While it would be foolish to try to predict with precision what the results will be, I suspect that the new emphasis on private enterprise's role will support more people having the opportunity of experiencing the Overview Effect. This in turn will lead to more "overview thinking" worldwide I also hope that if we can turn a new focus on international space cooperation into a global "Human Space Program," it will lead to greater understanding of our role not only as global citizens but also as "Citizens of the Universe."