February 18, 2016 at 4:15 am by Frank White
I met Edgar in 1986, when I was conducting interviews with astronauts for the first edition of my book, The Overview Effect: Space Exploration and Human Evolution.
That day took on a surreal quality because it was snowing hard in Boston, flights were delayed, and I made several phone calls to him down in Florida, asking if he could wait a bit longer for me to get there. He was always gracious and accommodating, and I finally ended up in Palm Beach, with the sun shining and weather as different from that of Boston as imaginable.
When I arrived at Edgar’s beautiful home, he greeted me warmly and offered some food, which I readily accepted. We then conducted one of the very best interviews of those that made up the book.
Edgar had many things to say that were different from what other astronauts told me, and I cannot possibly share all of them here. He was unique, and my interview with him was also unique. However, a couple of interchanges are relevant and I include them directly from the book.
First, I told him that I was surprised at how varied the astronauts’ experiences were. I had expected something far more homogeneous. He corrected me with a turn of phrase that I have repeated many times since then:
I would challenge that. The variety in the interpretation of the experience is a lot greater than you expected. The experience is the same. I have developed a whole philosophy around the notion that the first-person experiential event is valid for every human, whatever it is. The problem is, how do they interpret it and how do they express it? (1)
I have quoted Edgar many times since then when talking about “the astronaut experience,” suggesting that the experience is the same, but it is because of the interpretation of individuals that it seems to vary so much.
Second, we talked about the difference between the orbital experience and a lunar mission. While Edgar agreed that they were distinct, he said that the impact depended more on the astronaut’s attitude and less on the type of mission. Was the astronaut open to experiencing a shift in the structure of his or her thinking:
To me, the difference between getting and not getting an “aha” experience out of it is whether it shifts your structure a bit. Do you get a sense of freedom, of expansiveness, because you've just experienced something that is different from your previous experiences and beliefs? (2)
In talking with Edgar about his extraordinary experience returning home from the moon, it seemed to me that it was more dramatic than the norm, as I had heard it from the other astronauts I had interviewed. To make the distinction, I called it the “universal insight,” which was defined as:
An intensification of the Overview Effect that brings a similar understanding of the universe and our place in it. It tends to occur when astronauts look beyond the Earth and focus their attention on the universe in which our planet exists. (3)
Edgar made great contributions to the theory of the Overview Effect with that interview, of course. Moreover, he continued to support the evolution of the idea and its dissemination right up until his death. Generally, whenever he spoke, he brought up the Overview Effect. He was also a principal speaker at early meetings that led to the establishing of the Overview Institute, and served as a Founding Member of the organization. Personally, I always experienced his support for the various initiatives we advanced over the past seven years.
I will miss Edgar in so many ways, and I know that many others will miss him as well, including his family, friends, and colleagues. He was a great man—and a great friend.
(1) White, F., The Overview Effect: Space Exploration and Human Evolution, American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics, Reston, VA, 2014, p. 192.
(2) Ibid., p. 193.
(3) Ibid., p.24.