Aug 01 2008
As we celebrate the 50th anniversary of NASA’s founding (in 1958) this week, we should keep in mind that this organization has provided some of the greatest exploration and technology thrills imaginable (e.g., 1st on the Moon), and has the potential to do even more as the 2015 Maslow Window starts sliding open in the next 5+ years. However, the number “50” suggests the circumstances will be different.
The Economist (7/24/08) provides some commentary and quotes NASA boss Mike Griffin: “The moon race was more than exploration for its own sake, and a lot more than an exercise in national pride; it was considered a real-life test of the viability of our open society—a vindication of the very concept of freedom.” Although gently dismissed by The Economist, it is true that freedom and exploration are inseparable, especially for Great Explorations and MEPs of the type considered here.
In my opinion, Dr. Griffin is the best NASA Administrator since the 1960s glory days. He’s technologically sophisticated, got his head on straight about what NASA is for, and doesn’t mind enthusiastically telling you about it. In fact, he reminds me a little of Tom Paine, the NASA Administrator during the late Apollo era who had to contend with the likes of the brilliant and dynamic Wernher von Braun. I met Dr. Paine at a 1980s Case For Mars Conference in Boulder and got the sense, as did we all, of what a great visionary he was.
However, NASA has changed since then. There’s a great little book by Howard McCurdy (Inside NASA; 1993) that I highly recommend. NASA started with rapid growth in a crash program (e.g., Apollo Moon vs. the Soviets), and then with the space race won, funding levels dropped and the NASA engineers and scientists aged. And so did NASA.
Emphasizing generational culture and waves, “…the first generation of NASA employees and scientists…(were)…raised during the Great Depression and the Second World War…and accepted the middle-class values of honesty and hard-work as natural parts of life,” according to McCurdy, but NASA’s 2nd generation, “…inherited an organization with much weaker central control and far more bureaucracy.”
That’s where we’ve been until the last few years, when it became fashionable again to speak of a return to the Moon and then Mars. Interestingly, McCurdy’s little hint of a connection between long-term economic trends and generational cycles is supported in more detailed writings (e.g., see The Kondratiev Cycle, by Michael Alexander; 2002) and will play an important role in the future of NASA.
So what’s next for NASA? Is the economy going to crash? Will human spaceflight be swept away? Is the world ending? Well, if you’re looking for gloom and doom, you came to the wrong place. This is a reality-based weblog! It’s based on long-term patterns in macroeconomics, technology, exploration, and society, over the last 200 years. Most media and other commentators do not focus on these long-term timeframes, so naturally their perspectives are limited.
The last 200 years clearly indicate (see Cordell, 2006) that Great Explorations and Macro-Engineering Projects (MEPs) like Apollo are fundamentally driven by long waves in the economy. The next such “Maslow Window” will start near 2015 and run until 2025, unless terminated early by a wildcard. Growing international interest in Moonbases and robotic planetary missions suggest that NASA will flourish if it can do 2 things: 1) make international cooperation and international leadership a fundamental feature of its programs, and 2) move the focus of human spaceflight from LEO to deep space (e.g., the Moon).
If NASA can facilitate the formation of a truly global space organization (e.g., like Interspace) in the next few years, we may be able to avoid a 56-year old replay of a Cold War-style international space race complete with a Sputnik-like shock.
(Incidentally, Economics Contributing Editor Ann Hovey and I just wrote an AIAA paper for September’s Space 2008 conference in San Diego that considers these issues, including economic scenarios. As soon as I get approval from AIAA, I’ll post it on this site.)