Apr 19 2010

Obama’s New Space Policy and the Spirit of Apollo

The response to Obama’s new space policy from the Apollo program folks and the Texas Congressional delegation has been quite negative; e.g., from Neil Armstrong (Apollo 11), James Lovell (Apollo 13), and Eugene Cernan (Apollo 17), Obama’s decision to “cancel the Constellation program, its Ares 1 and Ares V rockets, and the Orion spacecraft, is devastating.”

On the other hand, Buzz Aldrin (Apollo 11) and the space commercialization industry were more positive; e.g., Elon Musk, co-founder of PayPal and SpaceX, suggested it was realistic:

I think what this new policy recognizes is that NASA isn’t going to get some huge increase in its budget, as occurred in the Apollo era. So if we are to make great progress and sort of make the next giant leaps for mankind, then it has to be done in an affordable manner, and the only way to do that is by harnessing the power of free enterprise, as we use in all other modes of transport.

Can President Obama take us to Mars? Click .

And it’s possible they’re both right, but on different timescales. For example, at least in the short term, before an American replacement for the Shuttle is created, it may be “devastating” in a variety of ways, but in the longer term — when private launchers can safely deliver U.S. astronauts to the ISS and beyond — it may be financially and strategically profitable.

But rather than speculate further by focusing mainly on short-term thinking, Obama’s new space policy is an excellent opportunity to use the unique approach of 21stCenturyWaves.com, to see how the next 10-15 years could fit into the economic, technology, and geopolitical context of the last 200 years of great explorations and macro-engineering projects.

To illuminate Obama’s policy let’s ask a few questions.

I. Did Obama make an Apollo-style promise last week like that of John F. Kennedy in May, 1961?
JFK indicated that the U.S. would send a man to the Moon and return him safely “before this decade is out.”
According to U.S. News & World Report (1969), although initial cost estimates for Apollo were as high as $ 40 B — about twice the eventual cost — “Congress raised hardly any questions … (despite) disturbing domestic problems … Initial funds were appropriated swiftly to send Project Apollo on its way.”

Although President Obama has recommended that we go to Mars someday, in his policy speech he made no specific program recommendation or rationale, gave no firm timeline, and has not asked for a budget that could support a Mars initiative.

So Obama did not make a Kennedy-like commitment. But part of the reason is that Obama does not live in the economic and political world that JFK inhabited. Kennedy took office in 1961 as the greatest economic boom in history was gaining momentum, while Obama was elected during the Panic of 2008 and has governed during a “great recession.” The history of major exploration and technology programs over the last 200 years — since Lewis and Clark — shows clearly that Apollo-type projects do not flourish except during ebullient economic booms. Plus, Obama’s job approval rating (Gallup.com) fell from its high of 69 on 1/22/09 to 45 on 4/11/10, while JFK enjoyed his highest approval rating (83, on 3/8/62) while beginning his 2nd year; JFK’s lowest was 56 (9/12/63). Therefore, although Obama has a large majority in Congress, he does not currently possess the approval across the U.S. nor the political capital that JFK did.

II. Was the Constellation Moon Program canceled by Obama due to weak program goals?
Paul Spudis, an experienced planetary scientist and an astute leader of the return-to-the-Moon forces, remarked recently (4/16/10) that,

… one startling part of the speech was that we are abandoning the Moon as a goal …

But stop for a moment to consider exactly what President Obama said. Lunar return critics give many reasons to NOT go to the Moon: they think that it’s scientifically uninteresting, it doesn’t contain what we need, it will turn into a money sink (preventing voyages to many other destinations in space – perhaps number one on their list), that there are more pressing needs here on Earth, and I’m sure others that I haven’t yet heard. But this new space policy rationale is unique and carries with it different and significant implications for our nation’s exploration of space.

We have now added a new requirement for U.S. space missions – we must go to a place never before visited by humans.

According to Spudis, the real reason for returning to the Moon by 2020 was to begin the colonization of space by using lunar and other resources. In Spudis’ words, “the Vision for Space Exploration was strategic direction outlining a sustainable lunar return, whereby we would bootstrap our way ‘beyond’ by learning how to use the resources of the Moon and other bodies.”

Although it could have been just personalities or party politics, I began to suspect that the Moon wasn’t in our future when Mike Griffin wasn’t invited back. This was consistent with my initial impression that Obama would need to focus on repairing the economy and protecting national security, rather than charting grand visions in space. There was initially the well-advertised hope by Obama et al. that the $ 800+ B Stimulus Package would rapidly pave the way back to prosperity, and maybe that was the reason Obama didn’t favor the Moon … yet. But a year later, some of his major supporters in the economics community including Robert Shiller, “Don’t bet the farm on the housing recovery” (NY Times, 4/11/10), and Robert Reich, “The jobs picture still looks bleak” (WSJ, 4/12/10), are publicly hinting that problems will linger for a long time — as is the Federal Reserve (NY Times, 3/16/10) who left its benchmark interest rate near zero, and indicated it would likely stay there for “an extended period.”

So the real reason Constellation and the Moon were canceled by Obama is probably because he perceives no reason to continue it. In counter-ebullient times like now, the American public doesn’t have a burning desire to colonize the Moon or to pay for it. And Obama’s lack of success — so far — in creating a V-shaped, job-filled recovery indicates this situation will continue for “an extended period.”

However, Obama may be unaware that all ebullient economic booms (i.e., Maslow Windows) over the last 200+ years — except the post-WW II 1960s boom — were immediately preceded by a financial panic/great recession pair. And in fact, the Panic of 2008 signaled that we were within about 6 years of the new international Space Age.

III. Which is most important to Obama: Humans to Mars, prosperity, or the Superstar Effect?
Boris Spassky, a chess grandmaster, once said of playing Bobby Fischer — perhaps the greatest chess superstar of all time — that “When you play Bobby, it is not a question of whether you win or lose. It is a question of whether you survive.” Against Fischer even grandmasters often experienced “Fischer-fear” including “flu-like symptoms, migranes, and spiking blood pressure,” (WSJ, J. Lehrer, 4/3/10). The negative aspects of the Superstar Effect are observed in many competitive endeavors, including golf with Tiger Woods, among new associates at law firms, and probably even internationally with the United States space program.

Removing NASA from the launch business, as Obama proposes, will force the U.S. to have more respect for its space partners, and dislodge it, at least temporarily, from its long-held position as the world’s Space Superstar. For many reasons, I’ve long been in favor of promoting major international participation in human settlement of the solar system. And in 1992, with Otto Steinbronn of General Dynamics, proposed “Interspace,” an ESA-style global space organization that would feature equality among its key members (e.g., Europe, Russia, U.S., Japan, China). Movement in this direction would be a positive outcome of a temporary reduction of the Space Superstar Effect.

Obama apparently moved the manned exploration of Mars into the mid-2030s not because of the need to develop advanced propulsion systems (they are not essential, and could be developed sooner), but because there is no public demand for Mars now. And yet the Red Planet remains the next profoundly alluring space goal for humankind. Although leaving much to be desired as a comprehensive space strategy, Obama’s Mars policy is an astute psychological move consistent with the last 200+ years of great human explorations. The sequence of great explorations since Lewis and Clark has been guided by 2 criteria: 1) physical accessibility, and 2) mysterious newness; the sequence is: American Northwest (Lewis & Clark), Equatorial Africa (Dr. Livingstone), N and S poles (Peary and Amundsen), and the Moon (Apollo). In each case, physical accessibility became increasingly challenging (especially with the Moon!), and each target was enticingly new. Although we haven’t really begun to explore, develop, or colonize the Moon yet, Obama’s advisors may have sensed that humans to Mars definitely resonates with the American psyche. As Spudis emphasizes above, the Moon seems “been there, done that” to Obama, while Mars is NEW.

However, there is a problem with Obama’s suggestion of manned Mars in the mid-2030s. Great human explorations and MEPs — including space exploration — do not work like that. The extraordinary ebullience required for these projects is usually only momentary because of economic and military events. An unfortunate example was cancellation of the last 3 Apollo Moon missions due to Vietnam in the late 1960s.

Indeed, the lesson of the last 200 years is that the new Space Age is likely to begin near 2015 and extend through 2025, but not into the 2030s. Our best hope would be a robust, international Mars plan specifically focused on circumventing unfavorable long wave influences through the 2020s. The history of the International Space Station offers some hope in this regard.

And finally: Prosperity. Without it, no one will want to go to Mars (although they could). Over the last 200 years, the spectacular, rhythmic, twice-per-century Maslow Windows — including the 1960s — are always times of exceptional prosperity and widespread affluence. Regardless of financial realities, it’s the feeling of ebullience (what Keynes called “animal spirits”) that fundamentally drives public acceptance of great explorations and MEPs.

The real political question for Obama is: Can he put America back on the road to prosperity — the hallmark of all Maslow Windows — before he loses more political support? International economic and geopolitical forces will converge in the next 3 – 5 years and demand success. Although Obama’s political fate is still largely in his own hands, the economic and political parallels with the 1890s are intriguing.

For more perspective, please see: How President Obama is Creating the New Space Age.

2 responses so far

2 Responses to “Obama’s New Space Policy and the Spirit of Apollo”

  1. Frank Son 22 Apr 2010 at 4:17 pm

    Obama’s new space policy is not a ‘good one.’ While I somewhat disagree with Armstrong, Lovell, and Cernan — that is I do not believe “it is devastating.” I do believe …

    Thanks Frank!
    I enjoyed your comments very much and featured them in a new post. Please check it out HERE.

    Best regards,

  2. […] Bruce Cordell at 21st Century Waves is talking about Obama’s New Space Policy and the Spirit of Apollo. Really an stunning […]

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