Oct 20 2009

Is the Heady Optimism of the 1960s Apollo Program About to Return? Chatting with UK's Stephen Ashworth

Thanks to UK space expert and longtime Fellow of the British Interplanetary Society Stephen Ashworth for his comments about future space activities and Maslow Windows on his website, which I highly recommend (both the website and the comments!), by the way. He does an excellent job introducing the Maslow Window concept and indicating a few concerns.

Are happy days almost here again? A cheering, rain-soaked New York City crowd watches Neil Armstrong take his first step on the Moon in 1969. Click Apollo11crowd
Photo: Bettmann/Corbis

Let me borrow a few of his quotes here …

My own knowledge of recent history is not good enough to judge whether a cycle of roughly 56 years is in operation. And when people start saying that they have a sure-fire method of predicting the future of a highly complex system — whether the climate, or society; whether in an ostensibly scientific manner or through decoding secret messages in the Bible or the works of Nostradamus — my bullshit indicators start twitching.

Yet it is certainly conceivable that an overall cyclic pulsation in economic conditions — a two-generation business cycle — may be modulating the conditions for great scientific and exploration projects in a non-random way, allowing approximate forecasts to be made. And there is no bogus claim of certainty being made here — while great explorations may be imminent, we are also warned that the opportunity created by the newly favourable conditions could be squandered.

Actually, I don’t know much about Nostradamus except what I’ve seen on the History Channel! And I’m still not sure how he made his predictions. However, I discovered the Maslow Window by accident. I read a couple of books in 1992 that introduced and documented the 56 year energy cycle (one by Swiss physicist Theodore Modis), realized it was like a K-wave, and was impressed with the economic, technology, and societal parameters it was correlated with. So just for fun I checked to see if 1969 — culmination of the Apollo decade — was an energy peak. Of course it was, so I realized then that I’d have to check out everything back to Lewis and Clark to be sure it wasn’t real.

That’s when I noticed the Great Exploration/Macro-Engineering Project (MEP)/Major War clusters that line up with upswings and peaks in the long wave. (I should mention that the political scientists had already created a large literature on wars and the long wave, although I didn’t know anything about it yet in the mid-1990s. And Modis hinted at an MEP-long wave link, although I didn’t remember that until I noticed them preferentially popping up near long wave upswings and peaks over the last 200 years.)

So this is really a thoroughly empirical approach.

The theoretical part started when I tried to imagine how long business cycles could enable the clusters. It’s clear why the expensive MEPs would be favored by a large economic boom, but less so why Great Explorations would, until you connect a large, twice-per-century economic boom (part of the two-generation business cycle) with Maslow’s hierarchy. (Incidentally, before Apollo, the Great Explorations — e.g., Peary/Amundsen polar expeditions — were separate from the MEPs; e.g., Panama Canal.) This is the most likely time when large numbers of people in society will ascend Maslow’s hierarchy and momentarily be riveted by Apollo-style exploration and technology. But after the long wave peaks and begins to descend, this affluence-induced “ebullience” rapidly heads south; i.e., the “Maslow Window” collapses. Incidentally, that’s why we have 3 real Saturn V launch vehicles in museums today. In addition, Joshua Goldstein and others see major “peak” wars as interactive with the long wave, so they fit the broad pattern too.

This theory is certainly not perfect and cannot explain everything over the last 200 years. (And it doesn’t try to as you’ll see below.) As with anything involving real history about real humans and nations, there are always exceptions. But nevertheless, it does hang together rather well and points tantalizingly toward the 2015 Maslow Window and what’s in store for us!

More from Stephen Ashworth…

The difficulty I have with this theory is that Dr Cordell allows only about two decades of favourable conditions per century, in two “Maslow windows” 56 years apart.

The globalisation of the past half-millennium did not take place in scattered decade-long windows of opportunity, but was and had to be a continuous process over those centuries. Similarly, the multi-globalisation of the future will need to be a sustained effort. Certainly, there may be sudden leaps ahead, followed by long periods of relatively slow consolidation of the gains so spectacularly acquired.

Actually the 1960s Apollo Maslow Window itself (not counting the post-WW II long boom leading up to it) was even shorter than a decade; e.g., although Sputnik went up in 1957, Apollo didn’t really get going until 1961 and public support for it was already slipping by 1966. The length of the 2015 Maslow Window will probably be determined by how soon the expected mid-2020s major war begins. If it’s early (<2020) we could lose most of the Mars/Moon program, instead of only the last part of it as we did with Apollo in the late 1960s. Secondly, Maslow Window theory does not really focus on globalization. Based on the last 200 years, it applies mainly to 3 things: Great Explorations, MEPs, and major wars; i.e., focused, large-scale endeavors that generate intense international interest. In fact, as I mentioned in the 1996 Space Policy paper (in the Articles), a lot of technology and science research proceeds consistently without much long wave modulation. To the extent that international cooperation and commercial relations expand and develop during Maslow Windows, globalization would be enhanced, but not limited to Maslow Windows.

More key Ashworth comments…

If each euphoric window of opportunity is only a decade long, then no groundbreaking government programme will in such a short time be able to create the conditions for steady progress during the following relatively depressed decades. The 1970s saw not only no further progress in lunar access, but even the loss of the limited access that did exist.

He’s really identified the problem with Apollo and its interaction with the 1960s Maslow Window very succinctly! The Windows do close abruptly and terminate great explorations and large engineering programs. For example, the ebullience of the early 20th century polar expeditions and “Panama fever” was as intense as Apollo but was quickly terminated by WW I. Likewise, government support for the amazing central Africa explorations of Dr. Livingstone — he’d previously returned to London as a major hero — was rapidly cut off, much in the style of his brothers-in-exploration, the Apollo astronauts, just past the peak of their wave, 2 long waves later.

A subtle, but important point is that funding limitations do not fundamentally cause great explorations and MEPs to die, it’s because of a lack of ebullience. As the long wave descends and contractions occur, it’s the perception of falling behind by many people that understandably weakens ebullience, not the lack of funding. This is demonstrated by our current situation in the U.S.; You could run the greatest space program of all time on part of the $ 787 B Stimulus bill that was passed earlier this year — and some suggest that a small part of it should be returned to fund NASA — but during this great recession, a time of deep anti-ebullience, there is little public interest to do so.

Ashworth concludes…

If Dr Cordell and his co-workers are right, the period 2015-2025 could see doubled and tripled government space budgets, with multiple manned landings on the Moon and even Mars. But by the same token, the late 2020s and 2030s will see retreat and retrenchment, with events on Earth dominated by economic depression and war. A new conspiracy theory will emerge: astronauts never really landed on Mars at all!

Therefore the hope that manned exploration can leap ahead in a renewed age of Camelot is ultimately an illusion. It may indeed — but if it does, it will quickly fall behind again, with the loss of most of the capabilities gained during the decade of ebullient expansion.

I agree with Stephen’s assessment of the positive effects of the next Maslow Window but do not think the aftermath will be as bleak as he suggests. For example, although we no longer have a Saturn V and haven’t returned to Moon in 40 years, the U.S. and others have gained much human space-ops experience in the Shuttle and the ISS, plus we’re seeing the birth of the private space tourism industry, and we are the recipients of a genuinely multi-polar space world — unlike where we left off in the 1960s.

Two more things:
1) To counter the negative effects of declining Maslow Windows, we (globally) should strive to achieve a largely self-sufficient presence on the Moon or Mars (as suggested recently by Buzz Aldrin and others) during the 2015 Maslow Window. This will avoid another crippling ~40 year interval (1972 to now) when we are trapped in Earth orbit and deprived the pleasures of solar system settlement.
2) It was not an accident (and shouldn’t have been a surprise) that the Cold War space race began, as well as ended, the way it did. It’s been happening basically the same way for 200 years — all the way back to Lewis and Clark. The real power in learning these lessons is that we can begin to plan around these long waves, instead of being completely surprised by them.

We need a global, unified, multi-decade approach to human exploration and settlement of the solar system. And with knowledge of how Maslow Windows have operated in the past, we should be able to either moderate the long waves themselves, or at least reduce their effects on human expansion into the cosmos.

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