Oct 26 2009

State of the Wave — Is Human Spaceflight "Optional"?

Aerospace America (October, 2009), a publication of the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics, asks an interesting question this month — one that goes to the core of NASA’s as well as humanity’s future: Is human spaceflight optional?

Is near-term space colonization almost inevitable? Click mars-colony.

There are many responses to this question.

For example, the European Space agency affirms that,

Space activities help to define nations and their place in the world. Countries that explore space are envied as frontier nations with cultural vigour and leading technologies. The number of countries involved in space exploration is growing steadily and we are entering a new era of historic significance, in which we will extend human presence beyond Earth’s orbit, both physically and culturally.

The Global Exploration Strategy is key to unlocking humanity’s future in space. With increasing intent and determination, our partners plan to return to the Moon and beyond with the goal of sustained and ultimately self-sufficient human presence beyond Earth. It is an enormous challenge that no single nation can undertake on its own. We must do it together.

So for ESA, it sounds like the answer to the question is: Spaceflight is not optional because Europe associates human spaceflight with societal “greatness” through expanding the boundaries of science, technology, and industry by extending human presence and culture to the Moon and beyond. And “entering a new era of historic significance” sounds very much like approaching the 2015 Maslow Window.

The Space Foundation recently made the case for an operational International Space Station at least through 2020. Although ISS construction should be completed in 2010,

The U.S. is considering wrapping up its ISS involvement in 2015 and letting the $ 100 billion orbiting laboratory re-enter the Earth’s atmosphere and burn up in 2016. The ISS is both the largest and most collaborative human-made object ever to orbit the Earth. Fifteen countries are involved in the project … ISS education programs have reached more than 31 million U.S. students.

Elliot Pulham, Space Foundation CEO, is also concerned about potential negative perceptions of U.S. leadership, reliability, and commitment to large-scale space initiatives. Just before the last U.S. presidential election, MIT suggested that the U.S. and other potential Mars-faring countries should use ISS out to 2020 to develop microgravity countermeasures for long-duration interplanetary missions. So for the Space Foundation, human spaceflight is not optional, and its most dynamic, international symbol is ISS.

21stCenturyWaves.com has previously highlighted the revealing, multi-decade history of the space station program in the context of the long wave. For example, one of the most charismatic presidents in U.S. history, Ronald Reagan, was unable to make the station materialize within a decade of its proposal (1984), because of the lack of societal “ebullience” in the years near the Crash of 1987. Later, the station was nearly canceled by the U.S. Congress but benefited from the end of the Cold War and Bill Clinton’s internationalization of the program. In the U.S., the ISS continued “under the radar” for years. (For details please see The Shocking Truth About the Father of the Space Station.”)

As we approach the 2015 Maslow Window, it’s very likely that the American public will develop more enthusiasm for the project. It would be the supreme anti-ebullient irony for the U.S. to terminate ISS just at the moment the world is entering the next Golden Age of Prosperity, Exploration, and Technology. That’s why it’s unlikely to happen.

Like ESA, Buzz Aldrin is convinced of the viability of the Moon and Mars as sites for human outposts and settlements. Last week he advocated that the U.S. forego any Moon races — which the U.S. won back in 1969 — and instead foster a global approach to lunar exploration and colonization featuring the Lunar Infrastructure Development Corporation. According to Buzz, the LIDC

will pool the financial, technical, and human resources of its member nations to build the lunar communication, navigation and transportation systems needed for human exploration of the Moon. It would be a public/private global partnership … (that) will enable a sustainable human presence on the Moon that will be accessible to all the nations on the Earth.

Similar to Interspace, a concept for a global space organization proposed by Otto Steinbronn and myself in the early 1990s, LIDC will allow any nation on Earth to participate in Moon exploration by the purchase of corporate shares at whatever budget level is convenient for them.

Concerned that manned exploration of Mars was being neglected or deemphasized, Aldrin earlier proposed an ambitious U.S.-led human Mars exploration program featuring one-way human missions to Mars; i.e., the Mars astronauts would become colonists. The Russians have recently proposed joint manned missions to Mars with the U.S. and others.

The Augustine recommendations as described in Aerospace America are basically a series of options for the U.S. future in space that suffer from a lack of funding. “The clear message was that if NASA’s budget stays at historic levels, U.S. astronauts have little chance of ever leaving LEO.”

21stCenturyWaves.com brings a unique perspective to this issue based on the great explorations and macro-engineering projects of the Maslow Windows back to Lewis and Clark.

Here are five forecasts based on the lessons of the last 200 years, including recent global trends:

1. NASA Funding Will Increase. Because of healthy international competition and interests in lunar exploration, it’s likely — even in the short term (~2010) — that NASA funding will increase to a level enabling human spaceflight beyond LEO. If the 1960s Apollo Maslow Window experience is any guide, funding will recede as a serious issue as we approach 2015.

2. Space Activities during the 2015 Maslow Window Will be at the $ 1 T to 3 T level (2007 USD). This is based on MEP funding trends from previous Maslow Windows and the costs of current “secondary” MEPs.

3. NASA will Adjust to Increasing International Cooperation and Programs Beyond LEO. In 2013 NASA will be one long wave old and will likely become a member of a global space organization like Aldrin’s LIDC or our Interspace concept. This organization might help the world avoid a costly replay of the Cold War Sputnik-style space race.

4. During the Next Maslow Window, a Manned Mars Program May Occur Simultaneously With the International Moon Program… depending on global ebullience and funding levels. But based on previous Maslow Window durations, the 2015 Window will probably close before 2025 — not enough time for a Mars program to directly follow Moon exploration.

5. Human Spaceflight Is Not Really Optional. Probably the most powerful message of the last 200 years is that great explorations and monumental engineering projects are a product of two things: the laws of economics and human curiosity.

How Exploration and Technology Booms Really Work

While humans in general are hard-wired to want to go exploring as much as possible, in the modern world the only time they can is when economic pressures are reduced during the twice-per-century, unparalleled economic booms that trigger Maslow Windows. During this affluence-induced “ebullience”, many in society are catapulted to higher levels in Maslow’s hierarchy where their momentarily expanded world views make new exploring and massive building seem not just intriguing, but almost irresistible. This “ebullience” is an enhanced form of the “animal spirits” of Keynes and more recently Akerlof and Shiller, and the “irrational exhuberance” of Greenspan. The timing of the Maslow Windows is based on long waves in the economy as first described by Kondratieff (i.e., the K-Wave) and more recently Stewart (energy cycles), Strauss and Howe (generational cycles), and others.

This theory rests fundamentally on the three pillars of Maslow, Kondratieff, and Keynes, including modern extensions of their work, and is supported by global trends and key events described in this blog and elsewhere. Maslow Window Theory shows why — every 55-60 years — humans get momentarily swept away by extraordinary explorations and technology projects. However, they are still constrained by geographical and technological knowledge of their day, and there is a discernable sequence to both.

For example, Napoleon’s adventures and embryonic “manifest destiny” pressures made Lewis and Clark’s explorations of strategic importance. One long wave later the secrets of equatorial Africa became the focus for European exploration. In the early 20th century, because North America and central Africa had been probed, the only exciting places left were the North and South poles. And in the 1960s, the development of rockets made the Moon possible. None of these great explorations was entirely rational — they were the product of “ebullience” — but a logical sequence is seen: Each target for great exploration is a new geographical site of great interest that is less accessible than the previous one, but reachable with existing knowledge and technology.

So in a human sense, space is not optional because it — like all the great explorations over the last 200 years — is a product of unusual prosperity and human nature. As we approach 2015, growing ebullience around the globe will make major space and technology programs irresistible.

The only ways to stop space are: 1) to stop prosperity by interrupting the long booms that trigger Maslow Windows twice each century OR, 2) to change human nature.

Despite numerous well-known economic and military crises over the last 200 years, neither has ever occurred.

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