Jan 17 2009
President-Elect Obama’s strengths include his John F. Kennedy-like charisma and his flexible approach to issues. Since the election he has added experience in the form of numerous former Clinton personnel to key positions.
However, his challenges are well-known: 1) the economy and 2) national security (e.g., avoiding a 9/11-style attack). The strategic environment also features wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and increasing tensions in Europe reminiscent of a second Cold War with Russia.
In the next year or two, none of these issues will be dramatically affected by the U.S. space program, while the economy and the strategic environment will impact directly on plans for human spaceflight involving the Shuttle, Space Station, Moon bases and beyond.
The bottomline is clear: At least in 2009 and maybe beyond, Mr. Obama’s focus must be on his economic and natonal security agenda, not on NASA’s Vision for Space Exploration (VSE).
Let me briefly highlight how long-term trends over the last 200 years illuminate the world of 2009:
10. Long-term macroeconomic trends over the last 200 years are continuing in the form of the Panic of 2008 and its recession.
Although V.P. Dick Cheney doesn’t think “anybody saw it coming,” the Panic of 2008 should not have been a total surprise. Four of the last 5 Maslow Windows (including the one expected to open near 2015) were preceded by a major financial panic within a decade of the opening of the Maslow Window. Only 1949 was panic-less presumably because of banking reforms passed during the Great Depression and post-WW II ebullience.
The long-term macroeconomic trends of the last 200 years have persisted in spite of such disasters as the Civil War, W.W. I and II, and the Great Depression. Thus, despite our current recession’s severity, there is every reason to believe these long-term trends will continue into the future.
9. The timing of the Panic of 2008 indicates that we are within 7 to 10 years of the next Maslow Window; indeed, no Maslow Window has ever been delayed or diminished by a pre-Window panic.
Both pre-Window 19th century panics began about 10 years before their Maslow Windows and lasted about 6 years each. The Panic of 2008 began about 7-8 years before its expected Maslow Window; if similar in length to the 19th century panics, the current recession should end before 2015 (the expected opening date of the next Maslow Window).
The Great Depression began in 1929 and lasted about 10 years, however it began as a post-Maslow Window panic. Post-window panics tend to develop into much longer, more devastating recessions (e.g., the Victorian Depression, the Great Depression) than pre-Window panics do partly because they occur at a time when the direction of the economy is generally downward (following a major economic boom).
However, the Panic of 2008 began during the unparalleled global economic boom of 2007. The last 200 years show that we will recover into an economic boom at least as good as in 2007.
8. Mr. Obama has warned of potentially a “dramatically worse” economic situation, but estimates of the duration of the recession vary widely.
On January 8 President-Elect Obama spoke of “a bad situation (that) could become dramatically worse,” unless his mammoth spending proposals are passed by Congress. Obama’s public works program is billed as the biggest since the interstate highway system of the 1950s; not coincidentally it occurred about one long economic wave ago, just before the 1960s Apollo Maslow Window.
Private estimates of the current situation include John Mauldin who suggests the recession will last “at least through 2009” and then we face two years of “muddle through.” He suggests unemployment may continue to rise for 2 more years (to 10+%) and quotes an academic study that claims fiscal policy will not be enough. Although Mauldin sees a very long recession, his forecast is nothing like that of Harry Dent who sees the recession continuing until 2023! Mauldin’s forecast is consistent with macroeconomic trends of the last 200 years; Dent’s forecast isn’t.
7. Because he inherits an economy afflicted by the pre-Maslow Window Panic of 2008 and its major recession, it is unrealistic to expect Obama to embrace a NASA Administrator who’s closely identified with a spectacular program of human spaceflight like NASA’s Vision for Space Exploration.
Last March Alan Stern called Mike Griffin “the best Administrator NASA ever had,” and Griffin certainly reminds me of the great Administrators during Apollo.
However, the Orlando Sentinel reported (on 1/6/09) that Griffin would soon leave NASA. This is in spite of — or maybe because of — his active campaigning to stay as Administrator that featured his unparalleled commitment to the VSE.
6. The 5-year Shuttle gap will require Obama to decide if the Shuttle fleet should be retired as planned in 2010.
NASA plans to hire the Russians to launch U.S. astronauts to the station between 2010 and 2015. However, the approach to a Maslow Window typically features increasing international conflicts like the Russian attack of Georgia last summer. This feeling of an impending second Cold War has complicated NASA’s plans for a timely retirement of the aging Shuttle fleet, based on budget and safety issues.
Our new President may conclude that extending the Shuttle Program is too risky and expensive. If so, Obama may see Shuttle retirement in 2010 as the perfect opportunity for him to showcase his exceptional ability to generate good will and expand productive partnerships around the globe — even with the Russians — especially in a time of increasing international tensions.
5. The United States has no plans for ISS involvement beyond 2015, but long-term strategy for ISS could have important implications for Mars and other human interplanetary missions.
While ISS should be completed in 2010, the U.S. is uncertain about its participation beyond 2015. On the other hand, except for the Shuttle retirement issue, there are no major, near-term ISS decisions required by the U.S.. Still, the U.S. cannot ignore its $ 100 B “National Laboratory.”
Rand Simberg points out that ISS engineering design precludes it from becoming an interplanetary spaceship (!), but there’s no shortage of post-2015 ideas for how to use it in LEO, including possible Chinese participation, and even giving birth to the orbital hotel industry. Although Bigelow Aerospace denies interest in ISS, it’s hard for me to believe that someone somewhere isn’t thinking about using ISS as a hotel test-bed (pun intended!).
The MIT Space, Policy, and Society Research Group suggests using ISS out to 2020 to develop medical countermeasures for long-term human spaceflight to Mars, and to enhance the momentum of international cooperation nurtured by ISS. This would be excellent long wave timing because between 2020 and 2025 is when human missions to Mars are most likely to be financially and politically feasible.
If the U.S. announces that it will not extend its participation in ISS beyond 2015, that could signal the U.S. does not intend to launch human missions to Mars during the 2015 Maslow Window (see Mars, #3 below).
4. It isn’t just the economic and national security framework that suggests Obama may not be able to follow-through on his campaign promise for a 2020 Moon landing, it’s the political signals he’s sending.
In the last 200 years, no great exploration has ever occurred during the financial panic preceeding a Maslow Window. And that trend is very likely to continue. Plus, Jeffrey Kluger describes the friction between Lori Garver of Obama’s transition team, and current NASA boss Mike Griffin. In particular, Garver’s lack of enthusiasm for Ares 1 is an affront to Griffin.
Obama may signal his decision to temporarily deemphasize Moon bases by the NASA Administrator he selects. For example, Obama has reportedly asked former USAF General Scott Gration to consider being NASA Administrator.
Although Gration is loyal to Obama and is obviously a good leader, his direct connection with space appears limited to working with Hans Mark in 1982 when he was deputy Administrator. With little connection to human spaceflight or to the space science community, Gration is a philosophical clean slate — potentially ideal for Obama because of his capability to move NASA in whatever direction the economic and/or geopolitical context allows.
3. NASA’s extensive plans for Moon exploration appear to preclude human spaceflight to Mars in the first half of the 21st century.
The Planetary Society roadmap asserts that the NASA VSE goal of a human return to the Moon by 2020 may “lead to multi-decade delays in expansion of human activity beyond the Earth-Moon system.” They are absolutely right , although it’s not fundamentally because of programmatic and funding conflicts. They are more on target here: “The national economic situation exacerbates NASA’s budget difficulties and makes it likely that the stated lunar exploration timetable cannot be met.”
In Aerospace America for January, 2009, Leonard David quotes author Andrew Chaikin as suggesting that the Apollo Moon program was an “anomaly.” According to Chaikin, “The reason it was an anomaly was that political forces made the Moon our destiny… and all the forces aligned, however briefly. And by the time we got to the Moon, those forces were already starting to diverge.” That’s an excellent description of the rapid decay of affluence-induced ebullience during a typical Maslow Window. In fact, Apollo seemed like an “anomaly” only because the spectacular Great Explorations and MEPs associated with Maslow Windows are typically separated by 55 to 60 years.
Because the 2015 Maslow Window should culminate near 2025 — assuming wildcards do not terminate it earlier — and the U.S. plans to return to the Moon by 2020, this leaves only a few short years (assuming the schedule holds)) to achieve the first human missions to Mars, a very unlikely scenario. And the last 200 years show that the next Maslow Window after 2025 — i.e., the next realistic opportunity for humans to Mars — opens in 2071.
In fact, the national (and global) macroeconomic situation is a predictable consequence of technological, exploration, and military trends that have persisted over at least the last 200 years. Ignorance of them results in disappointments like the abrupt end of the Apollo program. However, in reality they provide a dependable framework within which multi-decade space or technology programs can be structured so they flourish and enable human expansion into the cosmos.
2. As expected during our approach to the 2015 Maslow Window — that’s complicated by a major recession and increasing Cold War-like tensions — key indicators of the strength of international space business are mixed.
For example, government space expenditures globally in 2008 were $ 62+ B. And planned launches during the next decade (i.e., moving into the next Maslow Window) will increase 38% over the previous decade.
However, the prediction market Intrade.com shows declining confidence in Virgin Galactic’s commercial spaceflight business. In response to “Virgin Galactic to send a paying customer into suborbital space (70 mi) on/before 31 December 2010,” their probability of success has dropped by a factor of 2 over the last 5 months: from 60% to 32%.
Another revealing sign of the economic times is Northrup Grumman’s corporate reorganization resulting in their Space Technology group being downgraded together with Integrated Systems into their new “Aerospace” sector.
1. If circumstances prevent Mr. Obama from becoming the next JFK-like “Space President,” who will lead America and the world back to the Moon and on to Mars?
We have recently speculated that Caroline Kennedy — the 51-year old daughter of President John F. Kennedy — might be ideal. She’s often demonstrated her dedication to JFK’s legacy, and if appointed to the Senate now and reelected later, she will have been in the Senate 8 years if she decides to run for president in 2016. This would be one economic long wave after her father became the first Space President in 1960.
The New York Times reported last Sunday that Caroline met with the governor of New York about her interest in being appointed to soon-to-be Secretary of State Clinton’s open Senate seat. Caroline Kennedy is supported by Mr. Obama and would bring endless connections, major financial assets, and her father’s unparalleled space legacy to the position. Plus, for the last week, the prediction market Intrade.com has listed Caroline’s probability of success as hovering around 80%.
It appears that the first step in our speculative scenario will soon occur.