Mar 23 2010
The European Space Agency’s online newsletter today notes that:
The International Space Station has won two prizes as the greatest international space project of all time. Aviation Week’s Laureate Award and the Collier Trophy are two of the most prestigious awards in the aerospace realm.
On 17 March, Aviation Week magazine announced the winners of the 53rd Annual Laureate Awards, which recognise the extraordinary achievements of individuals and teams in aerospace, aviation and defence.
Aviation Week has honoured the International Space Station (ISS) programme managers: Pierre Jean, Canadian Space Agency; Bernardo Patti, ESA; Yoshiyuki Hasegawa, Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency; Alexey Krasnov, Roscosmos; and Michael Suffredini, NASA.
The award is for “completing the project in 2009 with the addition of the last major modules (European-built Node-3 and Cupola) and the expansion of the crew to six. The ISS is arguably the signature engineering achievement of the last 60 years.
The last 60 years encompass the Apollo Moon program. If we limit it to international space projects I would agree, but if it refers to all space projects I’d still hold out for the Saturn V infrastructure, that delivered astronauts to the Moon in 1969, as the greatest. But forgive my quibbling: ISS is an extraordinary engineering achievement and points the way toward the unprecedented global space spectaculars expected during the 2015 Maslow Window.
The ISS has been also recognised by the National Aeronautic Association with the Robert J. Collier Trophy “for the design, development, and assembly of the world’s largest spacecraft, an orbiting laboratory that promises new discoveries for mankind and sets new standards for international cooperation in space.
By working together, partner agencies demonstrated that the station is as much an achievement in foreign relations as it is in aerospace engineering.
ISS’ importance as an engineering “miracle” is only equaled as a symbol of unparalleled international cooperation in space. It heralds a stunningly expansive and prosperous human future that could feature coordinated, global, human settlement of the solar system. (See: “A United, Global Effort for Long-Term Human Space Exploration?” — Why Not?)
Despite our justified superlatives about ISS’ extraordinary past and shining future, one question still lingers: Why has ISS — “the greatest international space project of all time” — not caught on with the American public … like Apollo did?
There has been no Apollo-style “Camelot” excitement associated with it. And history buffs know there has been no “Panama fever” as there was for the Canal, no “pole mania” like that for the intrepid discoverers of the north and south poles, nor anything like the mid-19th century “Manifest Destiny” feeling for the U.S.. (In fact, the U.S. House of Representatives came within one vote of canceling Space Station Freedom in 1993.)
So why no widespread American excitement for a program that truly deserves it?
This question involves an intriguing case study in the history of major technology projects and geopolitics. But in brief, ISS — plus two other spectacular MEPs, the Panama Canal and Apollo — illuminate the power of the long economic wave to enable — or to inhibit — great explorations and macro-engineering projects over the last 200 years.
Why did the Great Leaders de Lesseps and Reagan Both Fail?
By the time he began plans for the Panama Canal, Ferdinand de Lesseps’ credentials as a great leader were already secure. He had created the “technological jewel” of the 19th century: The Suez Canal. He brought the same extraordinary ability to obtain and marshal resources, focus technology on an engineering challenge, and provide inspirational MEP leadership with him to Panama. It should have worked. But it didn’t. (See: 10 Lessons the Panama Canal Teaches Us About the Human Future in Space.)
Likewise, President Ronald Reagan had it all. One of the most charismatic leaders in U.S. history, in 1984 he recognized a manned Earth orbit space station as “the next logical step” into space, and his judgment continues to be validated by the success of its descendant: the International Space Station. But not even Reagan could make Space Station Freedom materialize within a decade of his proposal. And surprisingly there is no mention of it in his official presidential library in Simi Valley, CA. Why didn’t it work for the president credited with winning the Cold War and who, while in Berlin in 1987, successfully issued the challenge, “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!” (See: The Shocking Truth About the Father of the Space Station.)
Why did the Great Leaders Theodore Roosevelt and John F. Kennedy Both Succeed?
In 1907, perhaps the most ebullient president in U.S. history — Theodore Roosevelt — decided that construction of the Panama Canal was essential for the U.S. to become a true global power. It was completed in 1914. (In the same period TR also supported Adm. Peary’s discovery of the north pole, and became the first and only president ever to personally support both his era’s Great Exploration and its primary Macro-Engineering Project; by JFK’s time Apollo had, for the first time, unified the Great Exploration and MEP into one superproject: the Apollo program.)
Likewise, in 1962 President John F. Kennedy publicly announced that …
We choose to go to the Moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win …
And only 7 years later Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin landed at Tranquility Base.
What Was the Difference Between Success and Failure?
Given the famous leaders involved, it is unlikely that inadequate leadership or determination led to failure. In reality, neither de Lesseps nor Reagan actually failed; I have suggested previously that they were just somewhat ahead of their time. They initiated major plans and activities for MEPs during a downward portion of the long wave — a counter-ebullient time historically known to be antithetical to spectacular macro-projects. (See: The Economics of Ebullience Points to a Sparkling New Global Space Age)
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 in 1984, 31 years before the 2015 Maslow Window and 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 Long Depression or Reagan’s Station from economic weakness indicated by the Crash of 1987 — but both projects should have been DOA. And they were.
On the other hand, JFK’s Apollo program began during the greatest economic boom in history (up to that time) and TR’s Panama Canal likewise benefited from the stratospheric economic rebound from the Panic of 1893 and the 1890s great recession (a situation with parallels to today). Both projects were sensational successes, and due to perfect long wave timing and great leadership, they should have been.
However, the ISS recent 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!
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 …
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 American and global public appreciation and excitement about ISS will greatly increase.