Jan 09 2011
Former NASA engineer Homer Hickam recently asked, “How about a Moon base?” (Wall Street Journal, 12/14/10).
In 1984, the great NASA Administrator during the first human missions to the Moon (1968-70), Tom Paine (left, w Pres. Nixon) said “The Moon will never motivate the American prople again.” Was he right? Is the Moon a One Hit Wonder?
The author of Rocket Boys (1998) and Back to the Moon (1999), Hickam feels that currently, NASA is up to … “Not much.” Because last year Obama sent
Mr. Bolden, the ex-astronaut, to Capitol Hill with a plan to cancel every one of NASA’s astronaut-related programs.
Hickham likes the Moon for all the usual reasons.
It’s close, it’s loaded with resources, and we can get there with existing technology.
Why not build a 21st century Moon base …
like the National Science Foundation’s South Pole Station, and invite the world to join us.
We’ll give our technological prestige a sorely needed boost, and something else will also happen: New and wondrous products based on NASA requirements for metallurgy, composite materials, solar arrays, computers and batteries will boost our economy, just as the technologies of the Apollo mission did.
Oh by the way, it won’t cost “vast amounts of money.”
Can you feel it?
That’s what we call “ebullience” — the key driver of great explorations like Apollo, and macro engineering projects (MEPs) like the Panama Canal.
And Mr. Hickham, not surprisingly, has identified himself as among the elite early ebullients in the world today. We call them “early ebullients” because they are anticipating a trend that will sweep the world around 2015 — based on macroeconomic data and global trends over the last 200+ years — much like Apollo captured global headlines in the 1960s.
As an ebullience junkie myself, I personally find Hickam’s enhtusiastic Moon base idea almost irresistible. It’s spirit reminds me of the 1990 plan of Lawrence Livermore National Lab, “The Great Exploration Plan for the Human Exploration Initiative,” by three sensational physicists: Rod Hyde, Yuki Ishikawa, and Lowell Wood.
Speed was essential; the whole permanent base would take less than a decade to create, with its first inflatable hab modules in place on the Moon by 1997.
You’ve got to love their ebullient theme (circa 1990): “We already have in hand what we need for the Great Exploration of the inner solar system.” And the controversial cost estimate was great too — only $ 11 B — that’s less than $ 20 B in 2009 USD, compared to about $ 150+ B (2009 USD) for the entire Apollo program.
So simple, inexpensive starter-homes on the Moon are possible today. But the real question is: Will the American people get as excited about it as Homer and I are — or was Tom Paine correct?
This is where the long-term, empirical approach of 21stCenturyWaves.com can provide unique insights.
How Maslow Windows Work
Over the last 200+ years Americans and many others have gone exploring whenever they could afford it. These transformative, great explorations — always accompanied by MEPs and sadly punctuated by a major war — have clustered exclusively around rhythmic, twice-per-century major economic booms, such as the Kennedy Boom in the 1960s.
During the major booms, affluence-induced ebullience catapults many to higher levels in the Maslow hierarchy. Their momentarily expanded worldviews — due to elevated Maslow states — make great explorations and MEPs seem not only intriguing, but almost irresistible. Trends associated with these “Maslow Windows” provide insights to our future.
The chronology of great explorations is as follows:
Late 18th/Early 19th Century Maslow Window: Lewis and Clark
Mid-19th Century Maslow Window: Dr. Livingstone (equatorial Africa)
Early 20th Century Maslow Window: N and S Polar Expeditions
1960s Maslow Window: Apollo Moon missions
It’s clear that great explorations of new, interesting geographical sites progress from more-to-less accessible regions, consistent with the technologies of the times. For example, President Theodore Roosevelt could not outfit Adm. Peary to explore the Moon, but he did encourage him to reach the North Pole. And John F. Kennedy chose to go to the Moon — rather than Mars — because he thought it would be a challenging, yet doable global demonstration of America’s technology and economic system.
Where Will the Next Great Exploration Be?
A reasonable forecast for the next great human exploration during the 2015 Maslow Window would be Mars colonization. No one’s ever been there and it’s the next accessible (beyond the Moon) new site of interest. Plus it’s the most Earth-like world.
But suppost Mars colonization does not begin after 2015? What then?
Over the last 200+ years each Maslow Window has featured a “great exploration.” If the 2015 Maslow Window doesn’t have one it would be the first time in over 200 years that’s happened.
What about the Moon? We know it has major commercial and scientific potential, but could the Moon again have the power to rivet the attention of the global public like Apollo, the polar expeditions, Dr. Livingstone, and Lewis and Clark did generations before? Will the public see the Moon as an Earth-style “golden oldie” (i.e., a pleasant memory) with real potential for more excitement, or a “one hit wonder.”
Does the Moon Have the Right Stuff?
As we saw above, over the last 200+ years the great explorations on Earth opened up spectacular new geographic vistas through a succession of quantum leaps from Lewis and Clark to (ultimately) the polar regions. And like the Earth, the Moon has many tantalizing surface locations awaiting intrepid human explorers.
But here are 3 reasons why the Moon may become a “one hit wonder” and prove Tom Paine’s forecast correct.
1) The Moon is subtle. The Moon is a small, airless, dry (at least on the surface!), impact crater-dominated world with a month-long day-night cycle. It’s omnipresent shades-of-gray color scheme completes its alien, repetitive presentation, at least to public eyes.
2) Space technology and the “Been there, done that” Syndrome. Since the 1960s the Moon has been studied in surprising detail with satellite technology, and we have a fair idea of what’s there — at least on and near the surface. So relative to pre-1960s Earth — when many regions were truly unknown — robotic and human exploration of the Moon has accelerated our understanding such that it may not provide another riveting, Apollo-style transformative milestone for public enjoyment.
3) Apollo 11 was a hit. During the 1960s Apollo program the Moon was a One Hit Wonder. Although the first humans on the Moon (Apollo 11) made a big splash globally — as did Apollo 13 because lives were threatened — subsequent Apollo landings featuring spectacular geologic sites were greeted by an increasingly distracted public.
On the other hand, here are 3 reasons why the Moon might again acquire the wonder and excitement required for a great human exploration.
1) Star Trek — The Next Generation. A new generation of young people, who are unaware of Dr. Paine and did not personally witness Apollo, are increasingly excited about exploring and developing the Moon.
2) ISS and Interspace:. Many of these folks are in countries (like China and India) with growing space programs and dynamic economies. International cooperation and competition — based on the International Space Station model — may focus attention on lunar exploration starting from an Antarctica-style base like that advocated by Hickham.
3) “Potential for cultural shock and social disorientation…”. According to Dr. Heywood Floyd at the American lunar base in Clavius (“2001: A Space Odyssey”, 1968), describing the alien monolith recently excavated on the Moon. Anything even remotely like this and you know the answer.
Click 2001’s Monolith on the Moon
The Tentative Bottom Line
Based on its questionable ability to motivate, Apollo-style the new Space Age, the Moon is probably a One Hit Wonder, although it will become much more than just a Golden Oldie (a pleasant memory). Indeed, the Moon is a scientific bonanza and has long-term potential for multiple MEPs supporting its future role as a major commercial, energy, and tourist center.
But barring some civilization-altering discovery on the Moon, the next great exploration will likely be in the Mars system.
Two key indicators to watch are plans for an international Moon base and a successful Russian/Chinese Phobos-Grunt mission. They’re important because they point in different directions.