Jul 22 2010

Was Apollo the Beginning, a Dead-End, or …? — Penetrating Polarized Views

President Obama’s space policy has “polarized” the space community like never before. It has resulted in three particularly interesting types of responses: strategic, commercial, and political. We’ll take a peek at all three and highlight their limitations in the context of the long-term, fundamental drivers of human expansion into the cosmos.

Are Robert Bigelow’s inflatable space modules the future in space?

Former Director of the Space Policy Institute at George Washington University, Dr. John Logsdon, recently offered a Space News Commentary (6/30/10) from his new book manuscropt, John F. Kennedy and the Race to the Moon (to appear early next year). He defends Obama’s policy, as does Holman W. Jenkins, Jr. in the Wall Street Journal (7/21/10), although Jenkins’ focus is more on space-related business.

Logsdon is an astute, long-term analyst of the space scene and is to be congratulated for integrating the last 50 years (almost one full long wave) in space, but unfortunately, it leads to some misconceptions. Without recognizing the full implications of the last 200 years of great human explorations and massive technology projects — back to Lewis and Clark — it’s possible to miss fundamental themes that permeate them all and point to a spectacular, near-term golden age of prosperity, exploration, and technology.

Is the Impact of Apollo a net negative?

According to Logsdon,

Sending 12 astronauts to the lunar surface was a great achievement and will forever be a proud part of American history. But in my judgment, while Apollo’s impacts on subsequent U.S. human spaceflight activities have been lasting, they have been on balance negative.

Actually Apollo was a brilliant, strategic response by JFK to long-term economic and geopolitical forces that reached a critical point in 1961. Three other 1960s-style critical points (i.e., “Maslow Windows”) are separated by 55 to 60 years back to Lewis and Clark. Many current indicators — including long-term GDP trends and the Panic of 2008 — point to a new Maslow Window opening by 2015.

Apollo was aimed at beating the Russians to the Moon; it was not propelled by a long-term vision of space exploration. To meet Kennedy’s “before this decade is out” goal, NASA chose a set of hardware systems and an architecture optimized for getting to the Moon as soon as possible; these choices had unfortunate consequences.

Logsdon is exactly right about Kennedy’s Cold War space goals; they were to win the space race, not to set the stage for large-scale space colonization. So it’s really “Monday-morning quarterbacking” to complain about their “unfortunate consequences.” Given the extraordinary historical context in which Kennedy’s program was conceived, it indeed — by any fair measure –was a success.

And Jenkins believes that “NASA’s tragedy is that it never recovered from the success of Apollo.”

What happened during the 40 years after Apollo?

I recently explained this in terms of the lack of wide-spread, affluence-induced ebullience driven by rhythmic, twice-per-century major economic booms (e.g., the 1960s Kennedy boom). But according to Logsdon,

One way of understanding the 40 years since Apollo is by viewing the space shuttle and the international space station as attempts to preserve and take advantage of that (Apollo) infrastructure, work force and industrial base. Pursuing an “Apollo on steroids” approach to the Constellation program was an understandable sequel to those programs, once again trying to employ the heritage left by Apollo. But this, like the hardware developed for Apollo and then abandoned, is ultimately a dead-end approach.

Logsdon supports his point by quoting Yale sociologist Gary Brewer (writing 20+ years ago) who observed that

NASA during the Apollo program came close to being “a perfect place” — the best organization that human beings could create to accomplish a particular goal. But, suggested Brewer, “perfect places do not last for long.” NASA was “no longer a perfect place.” The organization needed “new ways of thinking, new people, and new means.” He added “The innocent clarity of purpose, the relatively easy and economically painless public consent, and the technical confidence [of Apollo] … are gone and will probably never occur again.

Logsdon’s and Brewer’s positions regarding new Apollo-style programs as a “dead-end approach” that “will probably never occur again,” are simply not supported by history. In fact, great human explorations (e.g., Lewis and Clark), macro engineering projects (e.g., Panama Canal), and major wars (e.g., World War I) cluster together exclusively near rhythmic, twice-per-century major economic booms, over the last 200 years.

Without the crucial, but straightforward insight that space exploration is closely related to great human explorations of the past (at least back to Lewis and Clark), Logsdon and Brewer miss the point about the future. But Brewer’s description of Apollo as “a perfect place” is exactly what we would expect of a fractal Maslow Window during its critical state.

Is near-term commercial, habitation, and scientific development of Earth-Moon space still in the cards?

Jenkins (WSJ, 7/21/10) worries that

Many of the New Space companies have made it thus far by consuming the fortunes of celebrity entrepreneurs … (but) That can’t go on forever …

This is especially critical because

Gone is most of the money Mr. Obama earmarked to give private entrepreneurs … The customer they have their eye on (now) isn’t NASA but hotel magnate Robert Bigelow, who has two prototype modular space habitats already in orbit but lacks affordable transport.

Surprisingly, Logsdon sees the private sector taking on “a larger role in providing transportation service for people traveling to low Earth orbit” as fundamentally “a side issue.” To him, the big enchilada is “developing capabilities for going beyond Earth orbit.”

Again historical precedent illuminates the future. Humans first went to the Moon in 1969 during the 1960s Apollo Maslow Window. And Apollo is analogous to Lewis and Clark opening up the Great Northwest during their Maslow Window ~200 years ago. But it took about 1 long wave until the transportation routes, the availability of land, and the California Gold Rush motivated many people to go there to prosper. Likewise, it took almost one long wave (~ 50 years) to develop the systems that will allow entrepreneurs to profit from sending people into space. And because going into space is even harder than California, it’s still being perfected. But the point is that Richard Branson and many others will soon profit from this new “Gold Rush” in space.

“A polarized debate unprecedented in my more than four decades of close observation of space policymaking…” according to Logsdon, who then complains several times in his short piece about how poorly the government has presented and defended the new Obama space policy, including:
1) “…an incoherent defense of the new strategy…”
2) “Obama confused the situation even further in his April 15 speech…”
3) “There is a coherent explanation of what is being proposed, but NASA has given it little emphasis…”
4) “The White House and NASA dug a rather deep hole is mismanaging the rollout of the new strategy…”

It’s been my experience that when politicians or their advocates complain about the way a key policy or strategy is officially miscommunicated, it’s usually because the policy itself is weak and/or unpopular.

What could be wrong with Obama’ s space policy? According to Logsdon,
the following didn’t help much:

announcing a quickly conceived resuscitation of Orion, blowing off the Moon as a valuable destination, and setting an ambiguous target for a heavy lift vehicle.

Couldn’t agree more and you can see more here.

Logsdon concludes that,

The greatest threat to U.S. space leadership would come from our political system insisting on staying with the Apollo-era approach to the future…

This comment misses the key historical lesson of the rhythmic pulses of great explorations and grandiose macro engineering projects (including Apollo) over the last 200 years.

In fact, it’s not “our political system” that fundamentally drove Apollo. It’s actually the laws of economics and human nature.

Over the last 2 centuries, whenever humans could indulge their raw exploration passions, they did. In the modern world, this occurs mainly during short-lived, but exceptionally ebullient Maslow Windows that are driven by unparalleled 1960s-style economic booms.

Each Maslow Window has a different focus but the 2015 Window is likely to feature new commercial activities in space, international Moon bases, space-based solar power technology developments, and possibly the first humans to Mars.

But better enjoy it while it’s here, because long wave timing indicates the following Maslow Window isn’t expected until 2071!

One response so far

One Response to “Was Apollo the Beginning, a Dead-End, or …? — Penetrating Polarized Views”

  1. Russon 16 Nov 2010 at 1:36 pm

    This is nonsensical. America was maneuvered into this ‘new’ dark-age by.. ‘special interests’.. (clip)

    Enjoy your.. DARK-AGE…!!!

    Hi Russ,

    I don’t know anyone who’s enjoyed being trapped in LEO for the last 40 years…!

    Macroeconomic data and historical trends indicate clearly that — over at least the last 200+ years — transformative pulses in exploration and technology occur roughly every 55 to 60 years and are correlated with a long business cycle discovered (and powerfully documented) in 1989.

    The “transformative pulses” (i.e., Maslow Windows) appear to be highly fractal critical states where both good things (e.g., Apollo, Peace Corps) and bad things (e.g., Vietnam War) can materialize and dissipate with surprising speed.

    Short term perspectives that the media and some others specialize in often make it look like some “special interest” or other ad hoc influence is driving events, but, over the last 200+ years, that’s not usually the case.

    Best regards,

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