Dec 21 2008

The Future of Human Spaceflight … The MIT View

The Space, Policy, and Society Research Group at MIT recently released their whitepaper on “The Future of Human Spaceflight.” It’s good, but I have to admit that initially I was a little worried. It brought to mind the brilliant technologist, MIT icon, and 1960s presidential science advisor Jerome Wiesner. According to Walter McDougall (1985), Wiesner “denounced Project Mercury” (Apollo’s first step into space) and suggested it could result in a international public relations debacle or even astronaut death. If Wiesner had been making the decisions it’s likely no American would have landed on the Moon, but President John F. Kennedy’s leadership and vision changed the course of history.

Sometimes leadership in technology or science does not translate into a broader vision for the future of humanity, but happily that is not the case here. This MIT Report is basically a call to re-examine, update, and expand Bush’s Vision for Space Exploration in the context of a new U.S. president and a world rapidly evolving toward the 2015 Maslow Window…a 1960s-style golden age for exploration and technology.

MIT recommends that the International Space Station should be used by the U.S. and its international partners through 2020 to support human spaceflight to Mars. Click iss.jpg.

Their recommendations include:

1) The Shuttle should be retired as planned in 2010 as soon as ISS missions are completed. The Report cites “political concerns about relying on Russia” to launch American astronauts to the Station and notes that Russia’s performed well so far on its ISS launch commitments. They don’t comment on how the increasing Cold War-style tensions in Europe will influence U.S. leaders on this issue.

2) The International Space Station — our $ 100 B “National Laboratory” — should be utilized through 2020 and not retired in 2016 (the current plan). Extra time is need to obtain data on effective medical countermeasures for long-term human spaceflights to Mars, and to develop other space technologies with our international partners.

3) The Bush Vision of Moon exploration should be clarified and expanded so that it is “more, and not less ambitious.” The concerns include scale and timing of lunar base development, appropriate Congressional support for human spaceflight, and ensuring the Constellation transportation architecture’s capability to support interplanetary goals. Unlike the Planetary Society vision, the MIT Report does not advocate deemphasizing lunar surface infrastructure in favor of a Mars program thrust, but it does recommend the Moon vs. Mars issue be specifically examined. This is important because current Bush Vision timelines and long-term trends appear to relegate human Mars missions to the 2nd half of the 21st Century.

4) International partnerships should be expanded because they are the optimal way to focus U.S. and global assets on an ambitious, long-term program of human exploration of the solar system. The MIT Report makes several specific suggestions, including expanding the U.S.’s space activities with Russia, China, and India, and most importantly, expanding the meaning of “U.S. leadership” to include “foresight in building new relationships and collaborations.” This is consistent with movement toward the development of a globally coordinated, multi-decade program of human expansion into the cosmos.

Having just shared its important, insightful recommendations, it’s also true that the MIT Report begins on a shaky note by dilly-dallying in seemingly endless Wiesner-style issues such as: a) “Why fly people into space?”; the responses to that one have been cataloged for over 20 years, b) Science is not the primary objective of human spaceflight; yes that’s true, c) Flying a machine in space is less expensive and safer than people; uh-huh, right again,…

And d) my personal favorite: “No historical evidence, no social science evidence, and no genetic evidence prove that human beings have an innate, universal compulsion to explore.”

Okay. Who said there is? Unfortunately, use of the word “prove” makes the statement almost useless. What can anyone actually “prove” about the motivations of humans or groups of humans, especially in the past? (Incidentally, do you know why your spouse behaves the way he or she does? Can you “prove” it?)

What’s important is observations of the types of human behavior that appear repeatedly over significant intervals. That’s what this weblog is about: 1) to recognize the historical fact that — over the last 200 years –Great Explorations, Macro-Engineering Projects, and large wars cluster together about every 55 to 60 years, near the peaks in major, twice-per-century economic booms, 2) to develop a model that explains these seemingly diverse exploration and technology events as being fundamentally driven by long-term swings in the economy, and 3) to check the model’s forecasts for the next 15 – 20 years for technology, space, and society by using current events and trends from around the world.

Over the last decade+, this model has experienced considerable success explaining and forecasting events associated with our approaching Maslow Window. It appears that if you know the “Why” of going into space, you also know the “When”; either one points to the other. The predictive power of this model is based on the presence of long waves in the economy that are well-documented over at least the last 200 years.

Ironically, one of the pioneers in the study of long waves was the famous MIT professor (e.g., inventor of random access memory), 1989 National Medal of Technology winner, and National Academy of Engineering member Jay Forrester. In his System Dynamics model — the most sophisticated simulation of the U.S. economy of its time — a “surprise discovery” appeared directly from the model: The existence of a long economic wave with a 50+ year period. Recent work that supports MIT Professor Forrester’s key insights into long waves includes a 2005 NATO Advanced Research Workshop in Portugal on long waves and global security, Brian J. L. Berry’s volumes, Hugh Stewart’s 1989 book on 56 year energy cycles, the correlation of Strauss & Howe generational cycles with long waves, and even the simple observations of historical events, macroeconomic data, and current trends of this weblog.

3 responses so far

3 Responses to “The Future of Human Spaceflight … The MIT View”

  1. Burston 21 Dec 2008 at 3:01 am

    Scientists tend to stay away from “emotional” things, so that might have been the base for the claim that offended you. Great summary of the article though. I really love your blog and look forward to the posts. Thank you..


  2. Crudely Wrotton 03 Jan 2009 at 11:40 pm

    No innate, universal compulsion to explore?

    Ahh. That explains why we don’t have to keep an eye on our children as they grow up; they’re not curious about anything after all.

    I recall James van Allen describing the similarity between trees, hills, mountains, balloons, airplanes and rockets. They are all things that we have used to get a better view, to see what’s over there and to locate ourselves on the map. The chief result of such inspection is . . . a bigger map!

    No, we don’t desire to overthrow tired philosophies of manufactured contentment (OK, “some” do) and we never tire of a bland and unchanging life. No, not at all.

    Remember this the next time you look up at a clear night sky. Especially if you have a child in tow. Wouldn’t want to awake intellect by feeding young curiosity since we all know it just causes change and, uh, progress.

    Who needs all that stuff?

    I agree.

    It’s odd for a group of first-rate MIT engineers to offer such an obvious strawman statement attempting to disavow the human fascination with exploration.

    Happy New Year…

  3. Dewon 29 Jan 2011 at 2:53 pm

    I’m thoroughly enjoying your blog. I as well am an aspiring blog blogger but I’m still new to the whole thing. Do you have any helpful hints for novice blog writers?

    Start writing. Don’t quit.

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