May 18 2009

10 Lessons the Panama Canal Teaches Us About the Human Future in Space

The monumental Panama Canal was — prior to Apollo — the greatest Macro-Engineering Project (MEP) of the last 200 years. The Canal brought people together by splitting the continent, and in terms of cost, management, technology, and global significance, it has strong parallels with Apollo and the International Space Station (ISS), and offers us insight into our spectacular future.

The secrets of the Panama Canal reverberate through the last 100 years and — together with Apollo and the International Space Station — illuminate future Macro-Engineering Projects in space. Click panama.jpg.

Here are 10 Lessons the Panama Canal teaches us about the human future in space.

10. “The creation of a water passage across Panama was one of the supreme human achievements of all time,” according to ultra-historian David McCullough (1977), “…the culmination of a heroic dream of over four hundred years…It is a work of civilization.”

In Cordell (2006) I adopted the definition of an MEP from Eugene Ferguson (1916-2004), who was a well-known professor of engineering, a founding member and former president (1977-78) of the Society for the History of Technology, and a da Vinci Medalist (SHoT’s highest honor) in 1977. According to Ferguson, MEPs are: 1) at the state-of-the-art of technology for their time; 2) extremely expensive and usually large in size; and 3) sometimes practical in purpose, but often they are aimed at satisfying intangible needs of a spiritual or psychological nature and are highly inspiring.

This is a demanding definition that excludes many extraordinary projects like trans-continental railroads or large highway systems because, while expensive and significant, they do not stretch technology.

The Canal’s grandeur versus Apollo’s and ISS’ off-world technology, are tantalizingly suggestive of the unprecedented MEPs and great explorations that await us in the 2015 Maslow Window, as humanity’s expansion into the cosmos accelerates.

9. “The fifty miles between the oceans were among the hardest ever won by human effort and ingenuity,” (McCullough, 1977). The enormous sacrifice in human life — called a “great war” by President Theodore Roosevelt — was in excess of 27,000, including an estimated 22,000 during the French period (1881-1889) and 5,600 deaths during the American period between 1904-1914.

The threat of tropical diseases, land slides, railroad accidents, and premature dynamite explosions contributed to the extraordinary psychological stress for the workers. And while yellow fever crippled the French effort to build the Canal, the successful medical research of Drs. Carlos Finlay and Walter Reed aided the American project tremendously.

The modern and future world is indebted beyond words to the people who risked (and often lost) their lives working on the construction of the Panama Canal. They provide a profound inspiration to those currently engaged in the human expansion into the cosmos.

8. As of the early 20th century, the Panama Canal had the highest price tag of any construction project in U.S. history; indeed, it was the largest commitment ever of resources in peacetime for any nation. It cost the U.S. about $ 375 M — $ 8.3 B in 2008 dollars — over 10 years (i.e., the Peary/Panama Maslow Window). The Canal consumed only 0.10% of U.S. GDP during that time.

Although the Panama Canal was for transportation while Apollo was the first combined MEP and Great Exploration, and it was off-world, it’s still interesting to compare their costs. In today’s dollars Apollo cost close to $ 150 B, so Apollo was almost 20x as expensive as the Canal. However, a more meaningful comparison is as fraction of GDP. During the years of their programs, Apollo averaged about 0.25% of GDP compared to 0.10% for the Canal.

Comparison of Panama and Apollo suggest that MEPs during the 2015 Maslow Window will dwarf Apollo. For example,

A. INCREASING PUBLIC INTEREST IN MEPS: If this trend of an increase in GDP fraction allocated to MEPs continues (i.e., increase by 2-3x over Apollo), then coming MEPs would dwarf Apollo by corresponding factors. (This would imply that public support for MEPs in 2015+ would have increased over Apollo by as much as it did between Panama and Apollo.)

B. BOOMING ECONOMIC GROWTH: Given the projected growth based on the last 200 years of macroeconomic data — i.e., by 2025, increase of GDP by 7x over 1969; as of 2008, GNP has increased 3.1x over 1969 –, it is reasonable to expect MEPs in the 2015 Maslow Window to dwarf Apollo by corresponding factors. (PLEASE NOTE: As they have over the last 200+ years, rhythmic twice-per-century major economic booms trigger the Maslow Window ebullience effects on society, which fundamentally drive public support for MEPs and Great Explorations.)

Socio-economic insights from the Panama/Apollo MEP experiences and macroeconomic data from the last 200 years, suggest near-future MEPs
(e.g., including planetary bases, space solar power sats, interplanetary transportation systems) during the 2015 Maslow Window will significantly dwarf Apollo by factors of from 7x to 20x — i.e., in the $ 1 T to $ 3 T ballpark (current USD).

7. Both the Panama Canal and Apollo Moon program were fundamentally about designing, constructing, and using major transportation systems in hostile environments, and their management and technology challenges have impressive parallels and lessons for the future.

The Panama Canal’s design and technology challenges centered around the location and type of canal, and construction operations. No one had ever built an enormous structure in a tropical environment that included mysterious, lethal diseases (e.g., yellow fever) and other natural hazards (e.g., climate, snakes). This led to large loss of life and contributed to eventual failure during the French period (see 9 above). However, by November, 1905 yellow fever had been eradicated in the Canal Zone by the Americans.

In the early 1880s, the French under de Lesseps decided to construct a sea-level canal based on their successful experience at Suez — the technological jewel of the 19th century. Although the American chief engineer, John Stevens, initially agreed with the French, soon after his arrival in Panama he insisted on a system of locks (e.g., Parker, 2007).

McCullough (1977) speculates that if de Lesseps had changed his plan from sea-level to locks in 1886, the French might have succeeded — and this invites an intriguing parallel with Apollo. Although locks increased the Canal’s complexity and risk, they also reduced its cost and accelerated its schedule. This is similar to NASA’s decision to use rendezvous in lunar orbit to deliver astronauts to the Moon; this likewise increased (operational) complexity and risk, but obviated the need to develop an even bigger, more expensive launch vehicle than the Saturn V (i.e., Nova).

During the American period management challenges included supervising 34,000 construction workers and dealing with the continual threats to their lives (e.g., from accidents), as well as the unparalleled engineering, financial, political, and schedule issues of construction. The Panama Canal construction was motivated and begun by President T. Roosevelt, who made the first trip of any sitting U.S. President outside the U.S., a trip to the Canal. However, President William Howard Taft provided the most active, hands-on participation over the longest period (4 years as president) for the Canal, and President Woodrow Wilson officiated at its opening in 1914. Nevertheless, Theodore Roosevelt is considered “the real builder” of the Panama Canal.

The Apollo Program’s design and technology challenges centered around space transportation and operations, and crew systems. They included: 1) delivering Max Faget’s Mercury capsule to Earth orbit using modified ICBMs (e.g. Atlas for John Glenn in 1962) and returning it using heat shields, 2) testing Buzz Aldrin’s orbital rendezvous techniques in Earth orbit in preparation for John Houbolt’s Lunar Orbit Rendezvous mission mode, and 3) using Wernher von Braun’s monumental Saturn V launch vehicle to send astronauts and hardware to the Moon.

During Apollo, NASA hired 400,000 people from about 20,000 companies and universities. NASA management was subject to two major influences that did not exist for Panama leaders: 1) the urgency of an actual race to the Moon with another superpower, and 2) the immediacy of live television news broadcasts that emphasized the national prestige and symbolic elements of Apollo. The Apollo Moon program was announced by President Kennedy in 1961 and is most closely associated with him. However, Apollo developed substantially under President Johnson, and the lunar landings (1969-72) were accomplished during President Nixon’s administration.

Even being situated within the major economic boom of a Maslow Window and having great leadership is no substitute for the required technologies, systems, and engineering designs. This preparation for the 2015 Maslow Window is currently ongoing by ISS, private entrepreneurs, national laboratories, and elsewhere. It’s highly likely that the management challenges of the 2015 Maslow Window will include close interaction with international partners in all phases of future MEPs.

6. Like Apollo, the Panama Canal vastly elevated American national prestige and was a direct result of international politics and conflicts.

In 1897, the U.S. acquired Hawaii as a US territory, and later as a result of the Spanish-American War, Spain sold the Philippines to the U.S.. Since the Philippines had previously declared their independence from Spain, these events emphasized the growing need for both a Pacific naval presence as well as an Atlantic one for the U.S. (Rohatyn, 2009).

“Remember the Maine, to hell with Spain!”, an Alamo-like cry in response to the deaths of 266 US sailors while anchored in Havana Harbor, helped ignite the Spanish-American War. To replace the Maine, another battleship (USS Oregon) stationed on the Pacific coast rushed 14,700 miles around South America to Cuba — while Teddy Roosevelt, leader of the famous “Rough Riders”, vectored toward Cuban battle himself. Since the Oregon arrived at Cuba two months after war began, it didn’t require much abstract thinking for TR to recognize the Panama Canal’s potential strategic advantages.

Likewise, one long wave later, new President John F. Kennedy found himself embroiled in Cuban adventures early in the Apollo Maslow Window. The first was the ill-fated Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba (4/17/61), followed shortly by JFK’s inspirational May 17, 1961 speech announcing our goal to “land a man on the Moon, before this decade is out…” Even more threatening was the Cuban Missile Crisis of October, 1962 which almost triggered W.W. III. Both served to increase Soviet-U.S. tensions and intensify the competition and global political significance of the Space Race.

Many large, medium, and small space powers sense the international prestige associated with human space exploration of the Moon and planets, and intend to leverage the lessons of America’s history in this pursuit. New Maslow Windows have historically been times of increased international tensions and conflicts (e.g., the 1960s Cold War, the Spanish-American War), and it is likely such conflicts will arise again as we approach the 2015 Maslow Window, possibly in connection with space. For example, Cuba has been a focal point during the last two Maslow Windows, and Stratfor suggests it may be again.

5. “To a visitor from Mars it must have seemed that the Western world in 1914 was on the brink of Utopia,” according to historians J. Harrison and R. Sullivan (1966). This pre-WW I zeitgeist was responsible for the Panama Canal, the North and South Pole expeditions, the Titanic, the ascent of President Theodore Roosevelt, and the ebullience of “Panama Fever” and “Pole mania.”

Historical accounts suggest that Teddy “Speak softly but carry a big stick!” Roosevelt may well have been the most ebullient U.S. President in the history of the country, and that the Peary/Panama Maslow Window may have been the most ebullient period in U.S. history.

In addition to his Canal initiative, T.R. was a major supporter of Adm. Robert Peary’s ebullient expeditions to the North Pole. Indeed, Roosevelt has the distinction of being the first and only President to have played major roles in both the major MEP and Great Exploration of his Maslow Window; by the 1960s, the MEP and GE had become integrated into a single project: President Kennedy’s Apollo program.

TR became the 26th President of the U.S. in 1901 while still 42 — currently the youngest person, including John F. Kennedy, to hold the presidency — and left the office in 1909, about five years before the Panama Canal opened, yet he is still known as the one who built the Canal.

The story of TR and the Panama Canal show the power of the long wave in history and for the future. Like JFK, TR appeared at the perfect time — as his Maslow Window was opening — when his ebullient personality and great leadership qualities could most benefit the U.S. and the world. According to Roosevelt himself, what was crucial for the Canal was that “somebody (namely himself) was prepared to act with decision,” (Parker, 2007). However, the last 200 years teach us that, Great leaders help, but the economy rules!

4. The Great Victorian Depression began with the collapse of the Vienna Stock Market on May 9, 1873 (the Panic of 1873) and rapidly spread to America. Also known as “The Long Depression” it continued until the late 1890s, and is considered by some to be worse than the Great Depression of the 1930s. It is in this financial context that the French under de Lesseps began work on the Panama Canal in 1881. By 1889 de Lesseps called it quits, their effort a victim of disease, inadequate technology, poor canal design, and not surprisingly, lack of money.

In 1873 the New York Stock Market closed for 10 days attempting to achieve stability, while almost 1/4 of all railroads went belly-up, businesses failed, unemployment reached an estimated 14% (in 1876), and credit crashed.

The power of the long wave is demonstrated by the MEP-related experiences of Kennedy, Roosevelt, and De Lesseps. Kennedy and Roosevelt initiated their MEPs during major economic booms in the decades prior to their long wave peaks (their Maslow Windows) and were successful. De Lesseps initiated his during a descending portion of the long wave and failed. Since TR succeeded in his Panama Canal effort while de Lesseps failed in the same endeavor, is it possible that we are seeing the effects of markedly superior leadership rather than the power of the long wave? For example, could TR have successfully initiated the Canal in 1935? Or could JFK have launched Apollo in 1985 and been successful? In fact, history illuminated this question in the 1980s (see next point).

3. The Panama Canal and the International Space Station are intriguing examples of MEPs that began at unfavorable times during the long wave and were soon discontinued, only to re-emerge later and achieve success. The goal here is to achieve insight into the relative importance of long wave timing versus great leadership, and any other factors that may be important.

For example, President Ronald Reagan first proposed Space Station Freedom in 1984 with an estimated cost of $ 8 B. As congressional support for SSF dwindled, the end of the Cold War led to SSF being included in the International Space Station plan in 1993 with an estimated cost of $ 17.4 B. ISS orbital assembly started in 1998 and will be completed in 2010 for an estimated $ 100 B, including development, assembly, and operations.

Although both the Canal and ISS went through 8-9 year initial phases that did not achieve success, both later re-emerged under “new management” and were successful. Let’s consider the long wave timing of the “initial” phases of the Canal and ISS.

The initial Panama Canal phase was run by de Lesseps and began (in 1881) 22 years before the opening of the Peary/Panama Maslow Window in 1903, and only 4 years before the LW trough in 1885. Likewise, the initial ISS Phase was proposed by President Reagan and began (in 1984) 31 years before the 2015 Maslow Window, a full 13 years before the LW trough in 1997.

Based on long wave considerations, it’s hard to say which project should have suffered most — de Lesseps’ Canal from the Victorian Depression or Reagan’s Station from economic weakness indicated by the Crash of 1987 — but both projects should have been DOA. And they were.

But a historically interesting question was also answered. Not even President Reagan — usually considered to be at least comparable in leadership and charisma to JFK and even TR — could make his MEP materialize in the decade after he proposed it, during a downward portion of the long wave. This suggests that any leadership and/or strategic deficiencies de Lesseps may have exhibited were not the deciding factor in his lack of success — because Reagan’s Station experience suggests that the long wave trumps great leadership.

The “final” phases of both projects are also interesting, because both were successful. I have already noted that, due to perfect long wave timing and his great leadership, TR’s Canal project should have been — and was — a success. However, the ISS final phase began under President Bill Clinton (in 1993) 22 years before the 2015 Maslow Window and 4 years before the long wave trough — the identical long wave circumstances of de Lesseps’ initial Canal project; the one that failed! (Is this a coincidence??)

With identical long wave circumstances, why did de Lesseps’ Canal project fail and the Clinton/Bush II Station succeed?

Globalization? The broad, robust international cooperation flavor of ISS is consistent with the post-WW II, and especially post-Cold War, trends toward increased globalization in technology and science. The space station has picked up momentum ever since it became international.

Although it has not yet had the global psychological impact of either Apollo or the Canal, ISS is regarded by its participants as an “international marvel.” And well it should be: It’s second only to Apollo as the most expensive human project in modern history, it was made by 16 countries (almost “everybody” but China), there are 1 million pounds of hardware in orbit, and over 100 elements and modules were assembled in space.

In short, ISS is both an extraordinary engineering and foreign policy accomplishment that is historically comparable to both the Saturn V and the Panama Canal.

And yet despite its success, ISS is anomalous because it hasn’t yet generated “Panama Fever” or Apollo-style ebullience! ISS has apparently been able to temporarily survive low public ebullience, by surfing on the accelerating wave of “globalization.”

As we approach the 2015 Maslow Window, it’s very likely that public appreciation and excitement about ISS will greatly increase.

2. In some ways, the Canal was the ultimate MEP of the last 200 years. Like the Apollo program (see point 6), it was an engineering marvel that required the coordination of huge numbers of people. In terms of ROI, the economic benefits of the Canal for seafaring commerce and strategic uses have been very significant over the last two long waves.

However, to increase the Canal’s capacity and deal with future competition — which now includes the Suez Canal — the Third Set of Locks Project was approved by Panamanians in a 2006 vote by an ebullient majority of 76.8%.

This Panama Canal expansion project will cost $ 5.25 B — about 75% of the original Canal cost — and will receive $ 2.5 B in international funding. Construction will generate thousands of jobs for Panamanians and should be complete by 2014, just in time for the 2015 Maslow Window. Major risks to the plan include finances and whether the traffic model of the business plan is realistic.

Panama recently elected a new president who’s committed to the Canal Expansion Project and continuing economic growth during the world recession. U.S.-educated, conservative Ricardo Martinelli — owner of Panama’s largest supermarket chain — was elected in a landslide with 61% of the vote. President-elect Martinelli’s landslide election is new evidence that “early ebullience” in Panama is continuing to accelerate as we approach the 2015 Maslow Window.

1. The Panama Canal is an immensely important MEP of the early 20th Century Maslow Window that — by itself and in comparison to Apollo and the International Space Station — continues to inform us of the relative importance of the long wave, great leadership, and globalization to the probable success of potential MEPs and Great Explorations during the next 20 years.

The Lessons include:

A. If an MEP starts during a Maslow Window (with wide-spread ebullience) and features a great leader, it will succeed. Examples include the Panama Canal with Teddy Roosevelt, and Apollo with John F. Kennedy.

B. If an MEP starts during the down going portion of the long wave (during a time of counter-ebullience), even with a great leader, it will probably fail. Examples include de Lesseps Panama Canal project, and Reagan’s Space Station.

A reasonable rule of thumb is: “Great leaders help, but the economy rules.”

However, If the conditions of Point B exist, but globalization is a significant factor, the program may survive and eventually even prosper as it approaches the next Maslow Window. The only example is ISS starting in 1993 under President Clinton.

By our definition, ISS is not yet officially an MEP because, although it is recognized by its participants as an “international marvel,” opinion polls indicate the U.S. public has embraced ISS only minimally.

This gives us empirically-based hope that — despite the evidence of the last 200 years — post-Maslow downturns in the long wave will not inevitably terminate spectacular Maslow Windows. And more specifically, that globalization has a significant role to play in mitigating counter-ebullient portions of the long wave for future multi-decade or multi-century space initiatives.

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