Jun 28 2009

Does President Obama Need Space?

Like virtually all other presidents in U.S. history, President Obama ultimately wants a second term; and to get that, he needs to succeed in his first. So the question becomes: Can space contribute to the success of Obama’s first term?

Does President Obama need space to advance his economic and foreign policy objectives? Click obama-nasa.jpg.

In January I suggested that at least in 2009, space would not be a major focus for Obama. But in a recent op-ed piece in Space News (4/6/09), retired Air Force major general James B. Armor takes a longer view and boldly asserts that “Space is an important ingredient toward addressing every administration agenda and national goal.” He convincingly cites several arenas — including fixing the economy, buttressing national security, education reform, energy independence — that illustrate his point.

I will elaborate on General Armor’s discussion and inject, where appropriate, the lessons of macroeconomic data and historical trends over the last 200 years.

1) Fixing the Economy: Gen. Armor is right that investing in high-tech jobs in space-related industries would have a higher pay-off than many other alternatives. However, the global recession requires Obama to first deal with the issue of confidence in the economy.

As a Keynesian, Obama’s solution includes multi-trillion US$ stimulus/bailout packages, government control of large industries (e.g., auto), and record high deficits. In the language of Keynes, Obama must reverse the current negative “animal spirits” that afflict actors in the economy. Instead of Obama’s hoped-for outcome, some express doubts; for example the Brookings Institution, where “William Gale and Alan Auerbach share increasing public concerns about the deficit…as bad as the $1.7 trillion deficit looks for this year, the medium term and long-term numbers are of much greater concern. Our fiscal house of cards has dire implications for the American economy.”

Unusually intense Keynesian-style animal spirits — called “ebullience” — is a hallmark of twice-per-century Maslow Windows over the last 200 years, including the 1960s Apollo decade and the early 20th Century Peary/Panama Window. However, the lesson of the last 200 years seems to be that ebullience is a result (not a cause) of major economic booms. Akerlof and Shiller (2009) see parallels between now and the panic/recession of the 1890s, but they do not mention the most ebullient decade of the last 200 years — the Peary/Panama Maslow Window — which followed immediately. For those who see current parallels with the 1930s Great Depression, the current long wave trend is up toward the 2015 Maslow Window, as opposed to down during the 1930s, which should help Obama’s chances to ameliorate the crisis.

If Obama succeeds and receives a second term, he will be president during the major economic boom that is expected to open the 2015 Maslow Window, based on the last 200 years of economic and historical trends. If so, he will follow in the monumental footsteps of Presidents John Kennedy, Theodore Roosevelt, and Thomas Jefferson as he initiates the unprecedented great explorations and macro-engineering projects of this time.

Referring to the Great Depression, Akerloff and Shiller (2009) note that, “Confidence — and the economy itself — was not restored until World War II completely changed the dominant story of people’s lives, transforming the economy.” If our economy has not fully recovered by 2015, it’s possible that surging international pressure to build Moon bases and send people to Mars may have a WW II-style transformative effect on the economy.

2) Strengthening National Security: North Korea has recently tested a long-range missile and an underground nuclear device. While it’s doubtful North Korea can weaponize its nukes or control the trajectory of its long-range missiles, the U.S. has taken reasonable defensive measures against a possible missile launch toward Hawaii on July 4. North Korea has also repudiated the 1953 armistice ending the Korean War.

Some have suggested that North Korea is Obama’s Cuban Missile Crisis (of JFK in 1962). In any case, 1953 is exactly one long wave ago and we should expect analogous international pressure points to develop. For example, Iran and North Korea are allies and share missile technology. Protests against the disputed Iranian election have driven a wedge between Obama and Iranian leaders.

In addition, as Obama deals with a resurgent Russia, pursues the war in Afghanistan, monitors progress in Iraq, and continues to defend the U.S. against a 9/11-style attack, Obama will depend on space technology. According to Gen. Armor, “Re-establishing U.S. space leadership in collaborative international projects in all space sectors — civil, military, intelligence — can be a keystone to re-energizing U.S. foreign policy.” As we approach the spectacular and very dynamic 2015 Maslow Window, this will be increasingly evident.

3) Avoiding a Replay of Sputnik: The U.S. should build on the spectacular foreign policy success of the International Space Station by providing international leadership so that global resources, that might otherwise fuel international conflicts at hotspots on Earth, are channeled into a constructive “Grand Alliance for Space.”

About one long wave ago as another international cooperative space effort was taking shape (the International Geophysical Year) during the first Cold War, one result was the surprise launch of the first artificial satellite (Sputnik) that triggered the first race to space and an American on the Moon in 1969.

Based on trends over the last 200 years, in the next few years we are likely to see NASA participate in — or even become part of — a truly global space agency (e.g., Interspace) with a deep space (i.e., beyond Earth orbit) focus.

As Gen. Armor points out, the development of space-related technologies will support Obama’s foreign policy objectives and stimulate global economic growth. And the release of raw human exploration passions will re-energize education reform. “Space has a proven record of inspiring the young … A robust space program will create jobs and motivate K-12 science and math education, as well as focus academia and business as sponsors of scholarships and internships.”

4. Elevating the Human Spirit: Mindful that a new Augustine report on space is being compiled at the request of Obama, I’d like to feature my favorite quote from the original. After describing several rationales for human expansion into the cosmos, Augustine et al. (1990) state that “perhaps the most important space benefit of all is intangible — the uplifting of spirits and human pride in response to truly great accomplishments — whether they be the sight of a single human orbiting freely around the Earth at 18,000 miles per hour, or a picture of Uranus’ moon Miranda transmitted 1.7 billion miles through space, and taking some 2-1/2 hours merely to arrive at our listening stations even when traveling literally at the speed of light. Such accomplishments have served to unite our nation, hold our attention, and inspire us all, particularly our youth, as few other events have done in the history of our nation or even the world.”

Indeed, with the advantage of a powerful, long-term perspective encompassing the last 200 years, it’s clear that large international audiences have been literally enthralled and had their spirits elevated by the twice-per-century pulses of great explorations and macro-engineering projects during Maslow Windows that were unprecedented for their time. The great explorations included Apollo Moon, the polar expeditions, Dr. Livingstone (“…I presume.”) in Africa, and Lewis and Clark; and the MEPs included Apollo infrastructure, the Panama and Suez Canals, and currently ISS.

Commenting on the spiritual importance of exploration, Gen. Armor states that “as a frontier culture, we must be actively engaged in conquering outer space. America will simply not be America is it is not.” And the spiritual and legacy benefits are not limited to America. “The space frontier must be part of any great nation’s legacy. Other countries that aspire to greatness — China, India, Russia and a growing number of new spacefaring states — inherently understand this and emulate us.”

The benefits of these intangible rationales will have a profound impact on our global culture. Leadership means “new missions and activities that continually set legal precedents to ensure that democracy, rule of law and market economy conventions prevail in outer space.” These powerful ideas that conquered the world, offer a positive vision of our space future — for the United States and the world — that is worth aspiring to and energetically working for.

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