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The Overview Effect and the Camelot Effect

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By analogy, the central quest of Kennedy’s time was the unity of our planet, a place that was sharply divided by the Cold War and threatened with annihilation by nuclear conflict.  Having just pulled back from the precipice that the Cuban Missile Crisis represented in 1962, Kennedy seemed to feel urgency to locate this modern Grail, and the Apollo astronauts became his “Grail Knights.”  Though he did not live to see it, they did find the Holy Grail of our era — the “Overview Effect,” or view of the Earth from space and in space.  (8)

Until recently, historians of the Space Age have seen Kennedy’s commitment to Apollo as a competitive effort to defeat the Soviets in a “space race.”  However, new research has shown that the President reached out to his rival, Nikita Krushchev, on many occasions to propose a join US/USSR moon landing.  (9)

Though the Soviet leader rebuffed the President initially, his attitude seemed to be softening shortly before the assassination.  Moreover, Kennedy proposed an even bolder approach to the high frontier in a speech at the United Nations in September of 1963:

Why…should man’s first flight to the moon be a matter of national competition?  Why should the United States and the Soviet Union, in preparing for such expeditions, become involved in immense duplications of research, construction, and expenditure?  Surely we should explore whether the scientists and astronauts of our two countries—indeed of all the world—cannot work together in the conquest of space, sending someday in this decade to the moon not the representatives of a single nation, but the representatives of all of our countries. (10)

As it turned out, the Apollo astronauts went to the moon without Soviet cosmonauts as partners.  Nevertheless, they did discover the Holy Grail of their time, the unity of the planet that served as a context for its incredible diversity.

In the words of Apollo 17 astronaut Gene Cernan, the last man to walk on the moon:

“You look back ‘home’ and say to yourself, ‘That’s humanity –love, feeling, and thought.’  You don’t see the barriers of color, religion, and politics that divide this world. “ (11)

Seeing the unity of our Earth is truly a matter of perspective, a shift in worldview.  Once the astronaut returns to the surface, diversity reappears.  The planet is a holon — a whole that is also a part, and this is a key insight of the Overview Effect.   As I have written in my most recent book, The New Camelot:

This is why the Overview Effect is so critical: it offers us the direct experience of unity/diversity that simply was not available in all the millennia of human history until the 1960’s.  It is the true Holy Grail of our time.  (12)

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