Jun 28 2008
The recent discovery of “Snow White” in “Wonderland” by the Phoenix Mars Lander reminds me of humanity’s century-long fascination with Mars as the most Earth-like planet, and that it will inevitably be another abode for humans. But the question is how soon? On the other hand, the Moon is close, holds the secrets of Earth’s impact history, and has the long-term potential to support large-scale space solar power (SSP) initiatives. The Moon is also currently the focus of NASA’s Vision for Space Exploration.
At this point it’s useful to pause and consider the two types of major programs.
1) The first is what I call a “Maslow” program that comes in 2 flavors: A) A Great Human Exploration program motivated by inspiration, science, and (sometimes) strategic rationales; and B) A Macro-Engineering Project (MEP) motivated by inspiration, technology, and (often) strategic reasons. The perfect example of both is the Apollo Moon program, but there are many others (See Economic Growth, Wave Guide 1).
2) The second is called a “Survival” program. Possible examples might someday include an asteroid impact mitigation system or a space solar power system. Such a program has never flown, but if it did it would have to achieve the same strategic priority as a war.
Both Mars and Moon plans, as currently envisioned, are Maslow-style programs. The scientific rationales for Mars include origins of life and climate dynamics on the most Earth-like planet, and frankly dwarf those of the smaller, colder (internally), and more alien Moon. Mars’ “Earth II” colonization potential plus the fact that humans haven’t been there yet argue strongly in favor of Mars as NASA’s next focus.
However, the Moon is the next logical target off the Earth, and has the potential to provide materials and logistics for badly-needed SSP satellites. This might eventually associate the Moon with the first-ever Survival-style space program. Unfortunately, fully functional SSPs suffer from huge up-front costs and are decades (or generations) downstream.
This is a problem because Maslow programs of the last 200 years only appear during twice-per-century waves triggered by major economic booms. The other bad news is that “Maslow Windows” usually only last one decade and close abruptly. For example, the last 3 Apollo missions were canceled because the Vietnam War heated up in 1968 (See Conflict, Wave Guide 9). This suggests that major programs (e.g. SSP) with huge price tags and long — decade-plus — durations will not succeed, unless its Maslow Window is planned for, or the program becomes designated Survival-style.
NASA is planning a return to the Moon in 2020. By analogy with the Apollo Maslow Window (and all others over the last 200 years), the 2015 Maslow Window should close by 2025. And it could slam shut sooner depending on the timing of the expected 2020s major war. This suggests that Mars will get squeezed out of this wave, and sadly, the next Maslow Window (and major program opportunity) won’t open until 2071.
If, after 2025, we are to avoid being foreclosed from venturing into deep space (like we have been since 1972), we must somehow achieve a space presence by 2025 that is largely self-sufficient from Earth. Which would work best: The Water-World Mars or the Proximal Moon? It’s a challenging question to answer, but it’s the one we should be asking.