May 03, 2021 at 2:28 pm by Frank White
The death of Michael Collins, command module pilot on Apollo 11, has generated many tributes—all of them deserved—that testify to his place in history as part of the crew that landed on the Moon (though he did not).
In this essay, I will focus on my personal interactions with him and his contributions to the theory of the Overview Effect, which are significant.
After I had the insight that led to the Overview Effect hypothesis, I began interviewing astronauts and reading their writings to see if I could move from hypothesis to theory.
Early on, I found Mike’s excellent book, Carrying the Fire, about his life and his experience as an Apollo astronaut. Right away, I found a quote that inspired me to continue the work. In the book, he said:
"I really believe that if the political leaders of the world could see their planet from a distance of . . . 100,000 miles, their outlook would be fundamentally changed. That all-important border would be invisible, that noisy argument suddenly silenced. The tiny globe would continue to turn, serenely ignoring its subdivisions, presenting a united facade that would cry out for unified treatment. . . .
I think the view from 100,000 miles could be invaluable in getting people together to work out joint solutions, by causing them to realize that the planet we share unites us in a way far more basic and far more important than differences in skin color or religion or economic system. The pity of it is that so far the view from 100,000 miles has been the exclusive property of a handful of test pilots, rather than the world leaders who need this new perspective, or the poets who might communicate it to them." (1)
Collins wrote those words in the 1970s, but they have been echoed in every edition of The Overview Effect: Space Exploration and Human Evolution, up to and including the most recent one. I have also included the quote itself in every edition of The Overview Effect. (2)
I used that quote in my poster session at a Space Studies Institute gathering in 1985, where I believe I first used the term “Overview Effect” publicly.
In addition, I was able to interview Mike for the book in 1986. He had a lot to say, and referred somewhat pessimistically to the opportunities for US/USSR cooperation in space. At the same time, he continued to confirm the Overview Effect concept, with quotes like this one:
"I have said that the best crew for the Apollo mission would be a philosopher, a priest, and a poet. Unfortunately, they would kill themselves trying to fly the spacecraft." (3)
When the book came out in 1987, we sent copies to everyone who had been interviewed for it. I received a nice note from Mike, thanking me for the book and expressing the hope that it would sell a lot of copies.
I had the honor of spending time with Mike only once, but it was enough to get a sense of him as a person. In 1989, the eminent space historian John Logsdon invited me to speak at a George Washington University 20th anniversary celebration of the Apollo 11 mission. Sitting next to Mike at lunch, we chatted more about being authors than about being a famous astronaut and an aspiring writer. The Overview Effect had been out for about a year and a half at the time, and wasn’t selling as well as I had hoped it would. I suspect Carrying the Fire might have been disappointing to Mike as well.
The main comment I recall him making was something like, “It’s one thing to get a book published, Frank, and quite another thing to get people to buy it.”
I said amen to that, and as the fourth edition of The Overview Effect becomes available, I hope four times will be the charm! In any event, the quote from Carrying the Fire still has a prominent place in the book, as does my interview with Michael Collins, Apollo 11 astronaut and really nice guy!
(1)Collins, M., Carrying the Fire, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, New York, 1974. (2)White, F., The Overview Effect: Space Exploration and Human Evolution, (Fourth Edition), Multiverse Publishing, Denver, CO, 2021. (3)Ibid.