Mar 28 2009

The Shocking Truth About the Father of the Space Station

The recent completion of the solar arrays on the International Space Station (ISS) and having just marked its 10th anniversary in space, invite us to celebrate and contemplate the station’s birth way back in the 1980s.

It was in 1984 that President Ronald Reagan proposed a manned space station in low Earth orbit; named Space Station Freedom (SSF), it became the progenitor of the current ISS. Called “the next logical step” into space, Freedom was to be ambitiously multifunctional: a satellite servicing facility, spacecraft assembly center, astronomical observatory, a lab to study microgravity’s effects on astronauts, a commercial/industrial manufacturing facility. Reagan’s inspirational rhetoric soared almost as high as the station, “We can follow our dreams to distant stars, living and working in space for peaceful, economic, and scientific gain.”

Cost estimates for Space Station Freedom were $ 12.2 B in 1987 and it was to be permanently manned by April, 1997. Click ssf1987.jpg.

The day after Christmas (2008) we decided to visit Reagan’s Presidential Library in Simi Valley because — although we both admired the “Father of the Space Station” — neither of us had ever been there. We were impressed by the beautiful setting, the story of Reagan’s humble beginnings in Illinois, his movie career (including the “win one for the Gipper” video!), his ascent to the California governorship and the Presidency, and most of all, his actual Air Force 1 (a 747) that you see Contributing Editor Carol Lane smiling in front of.

Carol enjoyed this view of President Reagan’s Air Force 1, but still felt that something was missing. Click af1.jpg.

But one thing was missing, and this led to the 1st Shocking Truth about President Reagan (or at least about his library): There was NO mention of the space station!! After looking everywhere we finally gave up. It’s 3 months later now and we’re still surprised.

Of course, compared to “winning the Cold War” — which led in 1993 to the transformation of SSF into today’s ISS — and dismantling the Berlin Wall (a large piece of which is on display in the west courtyard), we know that a project (like SSF) that never came to fruition during Reagan’s 2 terms — and in fact was almost voted out of existence by Congress — would be considered small potatoes. But we still expected something!!!

More recently, as we enjoyed the mountain drive on the way to Indian Wells for a couple days at the BNP Paribas Open tennis tournament, we began to come to psychological terms with this (to us) stunning omission in Reagan’s Library. We remembered how President John F. Kennedy played the key leadership role in the first race to space. His charisma, timing, and courage contributed to the first man on the Moon in 1969. But we also were reminded that patterns in long-term trends in the economy, technology, and society over the last 200 years suggest that the fundamental driver behind the Apollo Moon program was the unparalleled economic boom of the 1960s.

Indeed the captivating question about which was most important to Apollo — President Kennedy or the 1960s economic boom — lingered. It all boiled down to this: Could President Kennedy have successfully kicked-off Apollo at any other time than when he did it — the early 1960s? For example, could JFK, the charismatic leader of “Camelot“, have successfully motivated a large space program in the 1980s?

This led us to the 2nd Shocking Truth about President Reagan: Not even the “Great Communicator” himself, arguably at least as charismatic as JFK, could make the space station program happen during the decade after he proposed it.

Were the 1980s just not conducive to Apollo-level Great Explorations or MEPs? Or was there something “wrong” with the Space Station project itself?

Why did the space station experience endless concept redesigns, political turbulence, a hefty $ 100 B price tag, and an unbelievable delay in its completion date from Reagan’s 1994 initial target to the actual date in 2011? …Only 17 years late!!

Of course, ISS is not a Great Exploration in the sense of Apollo or Lewis and Clark, it’s a “national laboratory” circling the Earth every 90 minutes. And it is, after all, the most expensive man-made project in history, by some accounts totaling $100 billion in costs. It involves 16 countries and there is approximately 1,000,000 pounds of hardware in space. The International Space Station comprises 100 elements that were built all over the world and integrated into one structure only in space. In total, the ISS is both an extraordinary engineering and foreign policy accomplishment that guarantee it’s an MEP historically comparable to the Saturn V or the Panama Canal.

On June 12, 2008, while explaining why the Superconducting Super Collider (SSC) ultimately failed to generate public support, we proposed 4 “rules” for success for MacroEngineering Projects. Although the SSC violated all four, the space station only violated two of them:

Rule 1: Never initiate a $ multi-B MEP during the downgoing portion of the 56 year energy/economic cycle (it peaked in 1969)…
Rule 3: Large MEPs like SSF or SSC that are proposed between Maslow Windows (i.e., “trough” projects) must be associated with a strategic conflict (e.g. the A-Bomb project during WW II) for them to be viable….

The two other rules were less a factor for the space station:

Rule 2: Never propose a big MEP during the downgoing portion of the 56-year energy/economic cycle when another spectacular MEP has already been approved. Although President Reagan announced Space Station Freedom in 1984 after he had proposed the Strategic Defense Initiative (“Star Wars”) in 1983, they were not really competitive because SDI was a “survival” program — not typically dependent on long waves in the economy — while SSF was a genuine “Maslow Program.”
Rule 4: MEPs proposed at any time must be impressive and inspirational to achieve public approval. Unlike the pyramids, European cathedrals, and the Panama Canal, most of SSC was buried underground and invisible, while SSF/ISS is highly visible directly in space and indirectly visible through the large number of Shuttle launches since 1998 needed to construct it.

Thus it appears likely that the 1960s Apollo Maslow Window was fundamentally driven not by President Kennedy, or even by the specific Great Exploration and MEP involved — but by the huge economic boom that triggered wide-spread ebullience and momentarily elevated Maslow heirarchy levels.

A similar confluence of societal affluence and ebullience is expected near 2015.

3 responses so far

3 Responses to “The Shocking Truth About the Father of the Space Station”

  1. […] The Shocking Truth About the Father of the Space Station – 21st Century Waves […]

  2. Pamela Dorfmanon 31 Mar 2009 at 7:08 pm

    This blog fascinated me.. I toured the Reagan museum back in 2002, and indeed was surprised that there was nothing regarding the lab. I have to concur with your thoughts regarding the rules to remember.. I doubt we’ll see much for a while to come.

    I’m curious.. when I read material of this nature, I have to wonder about the person behind the pen. Especially their views of God’s involvement in all this. What is your perspective?

    Hi Pamela,
    Thanks for your comments. Glad you enjoyed the post.

    I got interested in these forecasting issues because I was trying to discover if we would ever go back to the Moon or on to Mars; in effect, whether the 1960s would ever come again.

    Quite honestly, I was surprised at how clear the macroeconomic and historical signal of the last 200 years is. The last thing I would have expected is to see the Great Explorations, MEPs, and major wars line up near the dramatic, twice-per-century economic booms, but they do. To me as a scientist, this is an unusually interesting example of scientific forecasting.

    I also happen to be a Christian, but frankly I don’t have any special theological insights about the future. However, a few folks have privately mentioned to me that this work might have theological implications. While these ideas are certainly interesting, I don’t discuss them here because I want to keep the approach on this site empirical.

    Again, thanks for your interest.
    Best regards,

  3. Mary Cordell Kulbergon 05 Apr 2009 at 2:41 am

    I have not been reading your site for awhile and again I’m simply “blown away” by the extraordinary amount of detailed and interesting information on the topics you discuss.

    What am I missing here? …regarding this quote from above blog:

    “Why did the space station experience endless concept redesigns, political turbulence, a hefty $ 100 B price tag, and an unbelievable delay in its completion date from Reagan’s 1994 initial target to the actual date in 2011? …Only 17 years late!!”

    “…actual date in 2011?”

    Please explain, as obviously the space station is already in operation, and for quite a few years.

    Hi Mary,

    Thanks for your comment! Glad you enjoy !

    ISS construction in orbit began in 1998 but it’s actual completion date is expected in 2011. It’s like being so excited about your new house, that you move in before it’s finished!

    Best regards…

    P.S. Nice middle name! :)

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