Feb 03 2009
Those of you not yet in your 50’s won’t remember it. And since then, there’s never been a time like it. The 1960s — the time of Camelot and Apollo — were special. Letting your mind casually drift through space events of the last few decades, and remembering that no human has ventured beyond Earth orbit since 1972, sometimes it’s easy to believe that Apollo must have been a historical fluke.
This sentiment surfaced again recently in Aerospace America (January, 2009). In his summary of NASA’s current lunar agenda, Leonard David quotes well-known author Andrew Chaiken (A Man On the Moon) who asserts that Apollo was an anomaly because “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.”
And Chaikin is hardly alone.
Actor Tom Hanks — Apollo 13 star and major space advocate — suggests Apollo might have been early, “There was a national will and a mobilization of forces that could only come about by an executive order. We can….say we’re going to Mars someday, but it could be 120 years from now.” Without Kennedy we might not have traveled to the Moon “until the mid-1970s — maybe not even until the 1980s.”
Famous physicist Freeman Dyson (e.g., Dyson Sphere) expressed frustration with the political nature of the Space Station program during its development; although it’s a huge source of jobs, its utility for the human future in space wasn’t always the focus. Plus Dyson doesn’t “think we’re going to Mars in the next 50 years.”
I used to suffer from similar frustrations. For example, in my 1991 op-ed piece in Space News I saw the successful conduct of the first Gulf War as providing possible generic lessons for a future human planetary program. But it still wasn’t obvious to me what would drive it: “Perhaps the key hurdle facing SEI (Space Exploration Initiative) is identifying a motivation analogous to the Iraqi threat…There is little doubt that SEI would benefit science and international relations, and it would certainly elevate the human spirit. The question remains: can these worthy SEI rationales be formulated and communicated so that they become motivations as powerful as was the Iraqi threat?”
As I’ve since realized, looking for parallels between human space exploration and military conflicts can be misleading; they’re different creatures driven by fundamentally different forces. For example, a war is a “Survival Program” that can occur at any time, and funding isn’t an issue because national survival is Job #1. Although it’s never yet occurred (except in the movies), the challenge of deflecting an Earth-approaching asteroid might develop the same international urgency as a war. One could also argue that combating our current global economic crisis is also a “Survival Program,” at least in the financial sense. The Obama administration has given it great urgency and “stimulus” packages seem unlimited!
Notice also that our Economic Survival Program trumps human spaceflight. The champion of a U.S. return to the Moon by 2020 (Mike Griffin) has departed, and it is widely agreed that greater economic stability is a prerequisite for exporting human civilization to the Moon and beyond.
Although of great long-term value to civilization, this hierarchy suggests that NASA’s Vision for Space Exploration (VSE) isn’t a “Survival Program.” It’s what I call a “Maslow Program.” Maslow programs are triggered only during unparalleled economic booms that occur twice per century, when large segments of society experience affluence-induced ebullience. For many, this short-lived ebullience propels them to elevated levels in Maslow’s hierarchy where great explorations and macro-engineering projects are not only supported, but seem almost irresistible. But for those who do not ascend to elevated Maslow states, their affluence-induced ebullience often results in tragically destructive pursuits like initiating major wars.
Macroeconomic data and historical trends over the last 200 years indicate that this model is closely allied with reality and has predictive power for the 21st Century. In fact, Apollo seems like a historical “anomaly” only because Maslow Windows (i.e., the decade-long intervals when Maslow Programs flourish) are typically separated by 55 to 60 years.