May 11 2008

NASA Programs and MEPs: A Brief 21stCenturyWaves Perspective

Currently, the most important issue for humanity’s future – within the next 5 – 10 years — is to resume the large-scale human expansion into space by achieving self-sufficient colonies (e.g. on the Moon) before 2025. This is serious business because such opportunities are not continuously available. Indeed, unless we breakout into space by 2025, the last 200 years of macroeconomic and macrohistorical experience teach that long-term trends in the economy, technology, and society will not be favorable again for human expansion until about 2071. This is especially sobering because attempting to estimate the geopolitical, technological, and/or economic state of the world that far into the future is essentially impossible, and therefore the next Maslow Window (2015 – 2025) is of inestimable importance.

Upcoming posts in Wave Guide 7 will focus on evaluating NASA’s progress toward this goal by commenting on events and trends in three areas: 1) the strategic vision for human expansion into space, 2) specific NASA programs – both human and robotic – that are operational or in the planning stages and their status, and 3) future technologies and potential space Macro-Engineering Projects that could impact progress toward near-term space colonization.

For example, the traditional strategic debate within NASA has been Moon vs. Mars as the next focus for human exploration and settlement. The “Lunatics” (meant genuinely affectionately) clustered at Johnson Space Center in Houston, while the “Martians” centered around NASA Ames near Sunnyvale, CA. Proximity to Earth, previous human experience, and opportunities for resource development have always decorated the Moon’s portfolio. But many Martians believe the Moon is scientifically boring and we should immediately focus our assets on the most Earth-like planet – Mars. In the past, I personally have been seduced by the scientific delights and colonization-potential of Mars, but two things have recently opened me to Moon dreams: 1) prospects for space tourism in Earth orbit and eventually on the Moon indicate that private activities in Earth-Moon space will stimulate space colonization, and 2) 2015 – 2025 may well be the last forecastable window for human expansion into space, and any space foothold is far, far better than none.

Since its inception in 2004, NASA’s official Vision for Space Exploration (VSE) has met with mixed reviews. It promised a return to the Moon by 2020 and eventually a crewed mission to Mars. Along the way a new Orion crew vehicle will fly by 2014 and Shuttle-Derived Launch Vehicles will be developed. Critics’ complaints include unrealistic cost estimates and schedules. Former NASA scientist Paul Spudis has deeper concerns, “The VSE in NASA terms has become all about building the new Orion and Ares vehicles with very little tying these spacecraft to their destinations….NASA still doesn’t really understand what its mission is…” Spudis recommends: “We’re going to the Moon to learn how to live and work on another world. It’s that simple.”

Spudis’ single-sentence mission is lunar colonization, which we forecast to begin after 2015. However, these and other concerns are typical of pre-Maslow Window times (such as now). After the Sputnik shock in 1957, the U.S. swiftly organized its assets into the greatest technology project of all time: Apollo! Upcoming Wave Guide 7 posts will monitor this transition at NASA as it occurs in response to the expected international Sputnik-like shock in the next few years.

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