Jan 24 2009

Long Waves and the Future of Human Spaceflight

Bruce’s Abstract
Submitted to AIAA SPACE 2009 Conference and Exposition,

14-17 Sep Pasadena, California

President Obama’s administration has begun an appropriate re-evaluation of U.S. strategy for human spaceflight, especially in the context of economic and other factors. Therefore, it’s useful now to consider policy implications for the Vision for Space Exploration from a variety of factors, including long-term trends.

A variety of long-term indicators – economic, technological, and geopolitical – strongly suggest that a new international space race may take shape during the next 7 – 10 years (Cordell & Hovey, 2008). This unprecedented thrust into space is expected to significantly exceed the scale and scope of the 1960’s Apollo Moon program and will culminate by 2025 in a variety of major activities in space such as Moonbases, tourists in LEO, and possibly humans on Mars.

Cordell (1996) suggested that repetitive patterns in the economy, technology, and exploration over the last 200 years may have predictive power for the 21st Century. In particular, a 55 to 60-year cycle was identified, where macro-engineering projects (e.g., Panama Canal), significant human explorations (e.g., Lewis and Clark), and major wars (e.g., Civil War) tend to cluster together near major economic booms. The bottom-line forecast was that the decade from 2015 to 2025 will be the analog of the 1960s, bringing a global focus on achievement in space exploration and a Camelot-like zeitgeist.

The case for this long-term approach to 21st Century space forecasting was expanded in Cordell (2006) and Cordell & Hovey (2008). For example, the concept of a “Maslow Window” was developed, in which twice-per-century major economic booms do two things: 1) result in wide-spread affluence required to spur large-scale technology and engineering activities, and, more importantly, 2) create societal ebullience by briefly elevating many people to higher levels in Maslow’s hierarchy. Ebullience creates an atmosphere of social well-being and confidence vital to undertake and support large, risky, multi-year programs. The confluence of societal affluence and ebullience is seen infrequently in modern times, when unparalleled booms in economic activity triggered the four great explorations (Lewis and Clark, Dr. Livingstone in Africa, the Polar Expeditions, Apollo Moon) of the last 200 years.

In this paper the implications of long-term trends are examined for three key issues: 1) the Shuttle 5-year gap and the future of international cooperation in space, 2) prospects for human spaceflight to Mars, and 3) the timing of the next race to space.

First, based on safety and cost rationales, NASA currently plans to retire the Shuttle in 2010, and Ares I is expected to come online by 2015. This will create a 5-year gap (or 3 year if Shuttle ops continue to 2012) in U.S. capability to launch astronauts to ISS which NASA plans to fill with the Russian Soyuz. In summer, 2008 this strategy was weakened because of the Russian invasion of Georgia and an increase of Cold War-like tensions. Some have indicated that Russian-US space cooperation has weathered stormy times before, which is true. However, the Sputnik-Apollo era during the Cold War was not one of them (McDougall, 1985).

This is relevant because long-term trends – over the last 200 years – suggest we are heading into a second Cold War (e.g., Lucas, 2008). At the NATO Advanced Workshop in Portugal on Kondratieff Waves, Warfare, and World Security, Goldstein (2006) reviewed his 20+ years of research on long waves and concluded they have “strong predictive power” for economic and geopolitical (e.g., war) variables. Also, Stratfor, a well-known private geopolitical forecasting firm, asserted in 2008 that to envision the future trajectory of a resurgent Russia, “we should consider Cold War history.”

This is not to suggest that the U.S. should limit future cooperation in space with Russia; to the contrary, close cooperation may help reduce future Cold War-like tensions. However, it is prudent that the U.S. not become dependent on a potential geopolitical opponent like Russia – as in the Shuttle 5-year gap — given the history of Sputnik and Apollo, which long-term trends suggest could replay between 2010 and 2015. Indicators for a possible ‘Grand Alliance for Space’ vs. a Sputnik-style of global space exploration are reviewed.

Second, the VSE features a U.S. return to the Moon by 2020 followed eventually by human spaceflight to Mars. Long-wave timing, based on four previous Maslow Windows over the last 200 years, indicates that the next Window will culminate near 2025. Every Maslow Window of the last 200 years has featured a major, international war toward its end; in this case it would be near 2025. For example, the Vietnam War heated up in 1968 (toward the end of the Apollo Maslow Window in 1969) and led to the termination of both Apollo 18 – 20 and human spaceflight beyond LEO after December, 1972.

The MIT Space, Policy, and Society Research Group (2008) 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. Thus astronaut safety considerations could limit human spaceflight to Mars to post-2020 timeframes.

The Planetary Society (2008) 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.”

Leonard David (2009) 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.

The lack of human spaceflight beyond LEO from 1972 to the present is fundamentally driven by a downswing in the long economic wave. We can expect the same thing to occur after 2025 unless a significant human beachhead is established beyond LEO. In any case, current VSE Moon exploration timing plus long-term trends indicate that human spaceflight to Mars may be relegated to the second half of the 21st century (i.e., after 2070).

Third, the current global recession — triggered by the financial panic of 2008 — has cast a shadow over plans for international Moon exploration and bases by 2020. Current estimates for economic recovery range from just a few years to the early 2020s! However, long-term economic trends suggest the next Maslow Window, featuring the next race to space, will arrive on time (near 2015) despite our current global financial problems.

Indeed, the financial panic of 2008 should not have been a total surprise, if viewed in the context of Maslow Windows over the last 200 years. For example, four of the last five Maslow Windows (including the next one expected in 2015) have been preceeded by a severe financial panic within a decade of their onset..

The 19th century panics lasted about 6 years each. This model suggests we can expect an on-time opening for the 2015 Maslow Window, as does the new Obama administration which is highly motivated to stimulate economic growth. It’s also possible that the global excitement of an approaching Apollo-like decade (starting near 2015) will assist the economy to recover back to the global economic boom of 2007 – which was the greatest ever on record. In any case, over the last 200 years, no Maslow Window has ever been delayed or diminished by a financial panic and recession.

Patterns in long-term trends in the economy, technology, and exploration that have repeated over the last 200 years, have surprisingly important policy implications for the Shuttle, ISS, and Moon/Mars programs, from the near-term through the 2020s. This is useful to NASA for three reasons; because it provides: 1) a framework for long-range planning and a test of specific forecast models, 2) a marketing theme, because space exploration is seen to be the most recent manifestation of the tradition of great explorations that can be traced back to Lewis and Clark; and, they are always the result of major economic booms, and 3) a morale boost, because timing is fundamentally due to long waves in the economy that have reliably influenced great explorations and macro-engineering projects over at least the last 200 years.

Cordell, B. (1996) “Forecasting the next major thrust into space” Space Policy 12, 45.
Cordell, B. (2006) “21st Century waves — Forecasting technology booms and human expansion into the cosmos” Futures Research Quarterly 22, No. 3, Fall.
Cordell, B. and Hovey, A. (2008) Forecasting the next 20 years in space: The new race to space” AIAA-7870, AIAA Space 2008 Conference & Exposition, San Diego, CA.
David, L. (2009) “Return to the Moon: Shaping a new exploration agenda” Aerospace America, January.
Goldstein, J. (2006) “Predictive power of long wave theory, 1989-2004,” In Devezas, T., Ed. Kondratieff Waves, Warfare and World Security, NATO Science Series, ISO Press, Amsterdam.
Lucas, E. (2008) The New Cold War, Palgrave Macmillan, New York.
McDougall, W. (1985) …The Heavens and the Earth, Johns Hopkins Univ Press, Baltimore.
MIT Space, Policy and Society Research Group (2008) “The future of human spaceflight” mitsys@mit.edu
Planetary Society (2008) “Beyond the Moon: A new roadmap for human space exploration in the 21st century” Pasadena,CA.
Stratfor (2008) “Fourth Quarter Forecast 2008” www.stratfor.com

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