Sep 10 2017

“Human Spaceflight to Mars as a Self-Organized Critical System”


This is the ppt for my talk to the 20th Annual International Mars Society Convention on 9/7/17 at UC Irvine: “Human Spaceflight to Mars as a Self-Organized Critical System”

The presentation illuminates two questions:
1) Why has humanity been trapped in Low Earth Orbit for over 40 years?
2) Are we entering a new Apollo-level, international Space Age that will take us back to the Moon and/or on to Mars?

1. The US Economy is attracted toward Critical States 2x per century, including nonlinear “Avalanches” (physicist Per Bak’s metaphor).

2. Early geopolitical avalanches in the form of a Sputnik Moment and/or a Cuban Missile Crisis focus the public.

3. Economic avalanches include a major economic boom that’s preceded by a financial panic, a clear precursor of the new Maslow Window.

4. The Boom provides capital for Great Explorations/MEPs, and most importantly creates an “ebullient” public as many ascend the Maslow hierarchy and their worldviews expand.

5. Great Human Explorations (e.g., Apollo) and MEP’s (e.g., Panama Canal) rapidly follow.

1. The remaining key step required for a stunning 1960s-style decade of space exploration is the triggering of a JFK-level economic boom. Reportedly, that’s the #1 agenda item of the Trump administration.

2. The trajectory of Great Explorations during Maslow Windows (since Lewis and Clark) suggests Mars might be the emphasis of the next decade. However, the nomination of Rep. Bridenstine as NASA boss implies the Moon may be first, although both programs, properly structured, could be run simultaneously.

For example, the Moon program might feature an international group (e.g., ISS partners) focused on evaluation and early development of the lunar polar ice deposits. However, humans-to-Phobos would have spectacular science potential while not needing a Mars Lander or the risks and costs associated with landing right away on the Red Planet.

3. Should we expect a 21st Century “Sputnik Moment”? It’s possible the “Cuban missile crisis in slow motion”, as the North Korea crisis is called, will provide Sputnik-like shocks that eventually yield to non-military solutions. Like the 1960s space race, these could stimulate Cold War-like competitions in space.

4. The twice-per-century appearance of Critical States/Avalanches and their associated Maslow Windows is a very robust phenomena that’s likely to persist into the 21st Century. They have survived the greatest crises of the last 200+ years — including 2 world wars, the Civil War, the Great Depression, and key 19th and 20th century financial panics/great recessions.

Human spaceflight to Mars is likely to be the near-term culmination of a transformative 1960s-style decade known as a Maslow Window. Featuring great human explorations (e.g., Lewis and Clark) and macro-engineering projects (e.g., Panama Canal), they are rhythmic pulses of unprecedented activity that occur twice per century.

A Maslow Window is triggered by geopolitical conflict (e.g., Sputnik; Cuban Missile Crisis), but is powered by an exceptional economic and technology boom (e.g., the JFK Boom) which collapses unemployment and increases real wages across society. As a result many individuals experience “ebullience” as they ascend the Maslow hierarchy and their worldviews expand. The most recent Maslow Window culminated in the 1960s Apollo Moon program. And right on schedule, it appears we entered a new Maslow Window in 2016.

Over the last 30 years self-organized criticality (SOC) has become a popular tool to explain a wide variety of phenomena like solar flares, earthquakes, financial systems, and even wars; e.g., Aschwanden et. al, Space Science Revs. (2016) Vol. 198, 1-4. The classic SOC metaphor is the BTW Sand Pile described by physicist Per Bak in 1987. Sand is dropped grain by grain on a pile. Eventually the sand forms steep slopes that reach a critical threshold; i.e., one more grain may trigger a system-wide change called an “avalanche”. In our case the “avalanche” analog is the Maslow Window itself.

A SOC system at its critical threshold displays non-linear energy dissipation and scale-free, intermittent avalanches with power-law size-frequency distributions. In a solar flare the avalanche is associated with the electromagnetic energy emitted by the flare. The Maslow Window critical state is observed in the real world to sequentially dissipate energy in several key avalanches including: financial events (a Panic and later a Boom), major geopolitical conflicts, great human explorations (e.g., Mars colonization), and macro-engineering projects. When the boom ends, and ebullience declines and animal spirits reverse, the Maslow Window slams shut, usually in response to a major war (e.g., World War I) — also a SOC process.

Our new Maslow Window is a complex system that has slowly self-organized over decades to a critical threshold which allows short-lived (< decade) avalanches — both good (e.g., SpaceX) and bad (e.g., North Korea) — to exist. However, the history of JFK’s Cuban Missile Crisis during the 1960s Maslow Window (plus all others over the last 200 years) argues convincingly that major kinetic conflicts are unlikely in the next several years.

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