Jun 26 2011

10 Lessons JFK and Apollo Teach Us About Ebullience and the Coming Boom

Amid what the U.S. Federal Reserve recently called a “disappointingly weak recovery,” it’s easy to become engulfed in what Akerloff and Shiller (2009) dsscribe as “Animal Spirits” — i.e., when negative psychology produces self-fulfilling prophecies. At times like this, historical perspectives are especially useful in reconnecting with reality.

For example, the presidency of John F. Kennedy is associated with one of the greatest periods of economic growth (the 1960s Apollo Maslow Window) in history. JFK’s ebullient mindset and actions set the tone for the most transformative decade of the last 100 years.

JFK, Vice President Johnson (left), and Jackie Kennedy watch the launch of the first American in space, Alan Shepard, in 1961.
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JFK, himself, saw his approval of manned spaceflight to the Moon in 1961 as

among the most important decisions that will be made during my incumbency in the Office of the Presidency.

JFK’s approach to Apollo provides insights into the coming decade, when a major economic boom is likely to trigger 1960s-style ebullience that historically causes civilization-altering technological spectaculars like Apollo to emerge.

Fortunately, John Logsdon’s excellent new book John F. Kennedy and the Race to the Moon (2010) offers a plethora of historical hints that suggest…

10 Lessons JFK and Apollo teach us about ebullience and the coming boom:

10. Apollo was an extraordinary decision by JFK that reflected the ebullience of the early 1960s.
The quintessential media figure of the time, Walter Cronkite, typified this mindset when he predicted that after Apollo 11, “everything else that has happened in our time is going to be an asterisk.”
Despite current conditions, do not be surprised to encounter — and even share — this exuberant mindset after 2015.

9. In 1961 the Soviets were ahead in space and there were significant technical issues facing NASA, yet JFK chose the Moon.
The Soviets launched 2 successful manned missions into orbit — including the first human into space (Yuri Gargarin) on April 12, 1961 — before the U.S. sent John Glenn into orbit on February 20, 1962. (Alan Shepard had become the 2nd human — and 1st American — in space with his suborbital flight on May 5, 1961.) And the Soviets added another first in June, 1963 when they launched the first woman (Valentina Tereshkova) into space. But in 1961 JFK was very concerned about the Soviet’s lead in rocket thrust. It was not until 2 1/2 years later (shortly after JFK’s death) that the U.S. Saturn 1 launch vehicle finally took the lead in that key category.
Despite great uncertainties, JFK’s ebullience provided an especially positive view of the future and the U.S.’s ability to prevail.

8. The future cost of Apollo was uncertain when JFK made his decision in 1961, but the 1960s boom initially made it nonessential.
Americans were so ebullient about space and Apollo that NASA’s first 5 years were characterized by “seemingly unlimited growth.” Amazingly, it wasn’t until January, 1963 that the New York Times initially suggested that:

Whether the $ 20 B (or $ 40 B) race to the Moon is justified …we do not think the matter has been sufficiently explained or sufficiently debated.

Notice that the Times didn’t know the cost either, even in 1963!
You’re immersed in peak ebullience when cost is not a central issue.

7. Ebullience is not limited to space; 1963 to 1966 was “The Perfect Storm” for social programs.
During this period President Lyndon B. Johnson was the author of many ebullient statements, including:

End poverty, conquer bigotry, heal the sick, teach all the young … We can do it all…

By 1966 “Even in the White House that kind of talk had begun to ring hollow…” when 385,000 Americans were fighting in Vietnam (Mackenzie and Weisbrot, 2008).
Ebullience is always a heady experience, but not always positive. And it usually ends sooner than expected. (It cost LBJ his presidency.)

6. Although by 1963 Congress had second thoughts, the American public supported Apollo through 1969.
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Roger Launius (2003) documents public support for Apollo in the 1960s. The top curve is ebullient; notice those who “approve of Apollo” fluctuate between 60% and 80%. In the middle, those who think “Apollo is worth the cost” are below 40% except for only 2 years: 1965 (45%) and 1969 (53%), the year of Apollo 11. Bringing cost into the question always confuses ebullient people, however the middle curve may appear more negative than it is. Other polls show that Americans traditionally wildly overestimate the cost of NASA; many think it consumes ~20% of the entire federal budget. Given a more realistic picture of NASA budgets, it’s likely the cost curve would ascend.
The ebullience driving 1960s space and social spending was strong for a total of 8 years, but it collapsed due to the war and costs.

5. In 1961 when he made the big decision, JFK was not certain the Soviets were racing to the Moon.
The U.S. had endured “the shock of the century” in 1957 when the Soviets launched Sputnik. This triggered the Space Age and the formation of NASA one year later. However, when JFK as president experienced the launch of the first human into space (Cosmonaut Yuri Gargarin) on April 12, 1961, he knew it was serious geopolitcal business. (Less than one week after Gargarin, the U.S. launched the unsuccessful Bay of Pigs invasion of Cuba.) Given the Soviet threat and the ebullient reception for NASA, JFK concluded that the U.S. could not tolerate being #2 in space. In reality, Khrushchev didn’t approve a Soviet race to the Moon until August, 1964, and he lost power later that year.
The 1960s were the most recent example of an international “Critical State,” where ebullience is high, and positive things (e.g., Peace Corps, Apollo) and negative things (e.g., Bay of Pigs, Cuban Missile Crisis) can happen rapidly, seemingly without warning.

4. JFK considered several options, but ultimately believed that the Soviet space challenge required an ebullient response.
JFK was not particularly interested in space when he became president, and he initially considered a variety of alternatives to a Moon race. However, his idealism and ebullience were triggered by the Space Science Board report, chaired by Lloyd Berkner (McDougall, 1985),

Man’s exploration of the Moon and planets is potentially the greatest inspirational venture of this century and one in which the whole world can share; inherent here are great and fundamental philosophical and spiritual values which find a response in man’s questing spirit and his intellectual self-realization.

Indeed, as JFK told his science advisor Jerome Wiesner,

If you had a scientific spectacular on this earth that would be more useful — say desalting the ocean –or something that is just as dramatic and convincing as space, then we would do it.

Ultimately space won out because it was more ebullient, dramatic, convincing. Being #1 in space strongly reinforced America’s national power.

3. JFK saw the Moon as potentially an opportunity to collaborate with the Soviets.
JFK proposed that the U.S. and Soviet Union go to the Moon together. The first time was privately during his June, 1961 Vienna summit meeting, shortly after JFK’s announcement of the U.S. Moon program. Khrushchev declined because of military security relating to their ICBMs. The second time was a very public speech to the General Assembly of the United Nations on September 20, 1963. JFK was assassinated 2 months later.
Over the last 200 years, the twice-per-century “critical states” have always featured major booms and peak ebullience, but there’s been more international competition than cooperation, including during Apollo. Given the success of the International Space Station, this is likely to change during the 2015 Maslow Window.

2. “If we can put a man on the Moon …”
The Apollo Program gave birth to an ebullient, famous cliche and set a standard of excellence against which all other challenging endeavors continue to be measured. JFK made the Moon commitment openly in front of a joint session of Congress on May 25, 1961, more than eight years before the first astronauts landed on the Moon in 1969. All things considered, Apollo was one of the most ebullient, amazingly successful, peacetime projects in the history of the U.S..
As we approach the 2015 Maslow Window, we expect a new JFK-style leader to emerge and encourage the next quantum leap in human expansion.

1. Camelot-style ebullience — the driver of the Apollo Moon program — was triggered by the 1960s Kennedy economic boom.
The last 200+ years of economic and technology history are supportive of JFK’s experience: A major boom triggers widespread affluence-induced ebullience. However, it’s the ebullience that actually drives the “golden age” by catapulting many in society to higher levels in Maslow’s hierarchy. Elevated Maslow states, and their momentraily expanded worldviews, make great explorations and huge technology projects seem not only intriguing, but almost irresistible. However, when the Vietnam War eroded ebullience by 1966, the 1960s “Maslow Window” began to close.
When the next JFK-style boom occurs (expected by 2015), a transformative pulse of Apollo-style exploration will follow.

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