Jul 10 2008

How Great Explorations Really Work

Thanks again to E.P. Grondine for ventilating some key ideas that relate to the unique long-term approach of 21stCenturyWaves.com.

Over the last 200 years (see Cordell, 2006), Great Explorations (and Macro-Engineering Projects; MEPs) are not accidents and do not happen at random times. They cluster around peaks in the 56 year energy cycle that coincide with major economic booms. The explorations become “great” not only because they open new geographic sites (e.g., arctic) to human scrutiny, but because large, international audiences of people become riveted by them.

In this model, the assertion of anthropologists that humans are by nature explorers — because of their 200,000 year history of exploration and expansion — is adopted. In the last 200 years, the explorer’s impulse can’t often be indulged by typical individuals because of economic and security (Maslow) pressures. However, during the twice-per-century major economic booms, widespread affluence elevates society to the higher levels of Maslow’s heirarchy. Thus for a brief period (called a “Maslow Window“), society reaches a semi-rational (almost giddy) state of “ebullience,” where Great Explorations are not just favored by most people, but seem almost irresistable.

However, ebullience rapidly decays as the economic boom slows, or as a major war (which typically occurs at these times) threatens peace and security.

Back to E.P. Grondine:
Space launch costs are high, and likely to remain high, … Realistically, (and sadly) a likely date (for manned Mars) would be about 2030-2035. The only chance for manned Mars flight in my lifetime ended with the collapse of the Energia storage shed.”

While Grondine is correct about launch costs and heavy launch vehicle issues, manned Mars expeditions also appear to be a casualty of the rapid decay of ebullience; i.e., Maslow Windows usually linger less than a decade. Attempting to do both a Lunar Base program and a Manned Mars program sequentially in the same Maslow Window (between 2015 and 2025) will be impractical, unless a more-or-less independent human presence on the Moon or Mars can be established. In principle, this would allow the deep space base to continue operations as the Maslow Window closes.

Continuing with Grondine:
“…you don’t seem to have considered that Antarctica is easier to exploit than space.”

Polar regions are classic examples of Great Explorations. Both poles were reached by 1911. Little science was done but the sheer adventure enthralled the world. In his time Admiral Peary was the celebrity equivalent of Neil Armstrong. Up to now, the collective judgment of humanity has been to avoid large-scale colonization or exploitation of the polar areas, to establish international scientific stations there, and then move on.

That’s why during the 1960s Maslow Window, President Kennedy did not propose sending a mission to exploit the polar areas or anywhere else on earth, he chose to go to the Moon. It was the next obvious target that would globally demonstrate America’s technological prowess (Apollo was also an MEP), as well as revitalize education and society by activating raw human exploration passions…that have been hard-wired into us for 200,000 years.

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One Response to “How Great Explorations Really Work”

  1. […] attention was particularly drawn to Bruce Cordell’s piece on How Great Explorations Really Work, in an intriguing site called 21st Century Waves. Here the idea is that great exploratory projects […]

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