Issue 49, 1 September 2009 -- 40th Apollo Anniversary Year

  1. It’s official: Constellation is bankrupt!, by Stephen Ashworth
  2. But is the heady optimism of the 1960s about to return?, by Stephen Ashworth

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(1) It’s official: Constellation is bankrupt!

Stephen Ashworth

The preliminary findings of the Augustine Review have exploded the illusion that the Constellation programme was on course for the Moon.

According to reports appearing mid-August, Constellation cannot achieve its goal of returning astronauts to the Moon by 2020 within the current budget.

Space-travel.com quotes Norm Augustine saying on PBS public television the previous week: “Really, we’ve given the White House a dilemma. The space program we have today, the human space flight program, really isn’t executable with the money we have. So either we have to do something with the current program that’s not going to be very successful, I’m afraid, or spend a nontrivial sum more than that to have something that’s really exciting and workable, and that’s the challenge the White House is going to have, is to sort that out.”

Meanwhile the Orlando Sentinel concludes: “NASA’s current budget offers no hope of sending humans past the international space station for 20 years or more. [...] On Wednesday, the panel said that Constellation, NASA’s current back-to-the-moon program, is running $50 billion over the current budget through 2020. But the alternatives presented Friday are almost as expensive, requiring $20-to-$30 billion more than the current budget through 2020.”

Note that in January 2004, George W. Bush called not only for a return to the Moon, but for an “extended presence” on the Moon whose access to lunar resources would enable flights beyond the Moon to be made more efficiently. But if Constellation is in grave financial trouble even before its first test launch rises in the east, what are the chances that at its zenith it will lead to an affordable and sustainable system for an “extended human presence” on the Moon?

Zero, I would say.

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(2) But is the heady optimism of the 1960s about to return?

Stephen Ashworth

Hands up, who’s heard of the Maslow window?

The 1960s were an amazing window of opportunity, in which the seemingly impossible was achieved on time and on budget (in contrast to today, where the seemingly possible -- because we already did it 40 years ago on 40-year-old technology -- is already running late and over budget).

Could the 1960s return? Could there be a new window of opportunity for dramatic exploration endeavours? Will they save Constellation’s bacon? And could our foothold on the Moon and Mars be secured through the “shock and awe” of an inspirational large-scale government programme?

According to Dr Bruce Cordell, Rachel Nishimura and their collaborators, exploration and heroic engineering projects are alternately held back and propelled forward by a 56-year economic cycle, apparently the same as the Kondratieff economic cycle. They write on their website:

“Lewis and Clark in 1804 was the first of the 4 great human exploration events of the last 200 years. In fact, many of the economic and political forces which drove their mission are similar to those that propelled the Apollo Moon program in the 1960s.”

The long-term rhythmic trends in the economy, technology, and society over the past 200 years are said to give us a reliable insight into the coming events of the next few decades:

“Indeed, the lesson of the last 200 years is that the future of the next 20 years is so bright, you’ll probably need shades! Major Apollo-style technology and space programs will soon announce the opening of the next international race to space. That’s the highly likely good news. It’s also possible that we could miss this opportunity for human expansion into the cosmos. If we do, the last 200 years indicate our next shot will be near the end of this century.”

Clicking on “The Concept” takes us to a more detailed explanation:

“Trends over the last 200 years [...] clearly point to the decade between 2015 and 2025 as heralding a similar economic and exploration boom as the 1960s, accompanied by a Camelot-style zeitgeist. When the 1960s wave of space exploration is viewed in the context of other major science, technology, and exploration advances over the last 200 years, it becomes possible to forecast the next peak in human achievement. As trends are examined, major events in human exploration (e.g., Lewis and Clark), massive state-of-the-art engineering projects (e.g., Panama Canal), and exceptionally destructive wars (e.g., Civil War) are seen to cluster together roughly every 56 years, near times of economic booms.”

Clicking on “Perspectives” takes us to the concept of the Maslow window, a period of time in which a large number of people are liberated by prosperity from their immediate worries and enabled to dream great things:

“This long-term approach to 21st Century space forecasting is based on the concept of a ‘Maslow Window’, in which each successive economic boom (typically peaking every 56 years) does two things: 1) it fuels the societal affluence required to spur large-scale technology and engineering activities, and, more importantly, 2) it creates widespread ebullience by briefly elevating society to the highest levels in Maslow’s hierarchy. This ebullience creates the atmosphere of social well-being and confidence vital to undertake and support large, complex, risky, expensive, multi-year programs and explorations. The confluence of societal affluence and ebullience is seen only infrequently in modern times, when peaks in economic activity (following a 56 year cycle) triggered the four great explorations (Lewis and Clark, Dr. Livingstone in Africa, the Polar Expeditions, Apollo Moon) of the last 200 years.”

What does all this amount to? And can it save and even accelerate Constellation, and boost Europe’s ambitions for its Aurora programme?

My own knowledge of recent history is not good enough to judge whether a cycle of roughly 56 years is in operation. And when people start saying that they have a sure-fire method of predicting the future of a highly complex system -- whether the climate, or society; whether in an ostensibly scientific manner or through decoding secret messages in the Bible or the works of Nostradamus -- my bullshit indicators start twitching.

Yet it is certainly conceivable that an overall cyclic pulsation in economic conditions -- a two-generation business cycle -- may be modulating the conditions for great scientific and exploration projects in a non-random way, allowing approximate forecasts to be made. And there is no bogus claim of certainty being made here -- while great explorations may be imminent, we are also warned that the opportunity created by the newly favourable conditions could be squandered.

The difficulty I have with this theory is that Dr Cordell allows only about two decades of favourable conditions per century, in two “Maslow windows” 56 years apart.

The globalisation of the past half-millennium did not take place in scattered decade-long windows of opportunity, but was and had to be a continuous process over those centuries. Similarly, the multi-globalisation of the future will need to be a sustained effort. Certainly, there may be sudden leaps ahead, followed by long periods of relatively slow consolidation of the gains so spectacularly acquired.

If each euphoric window of opportunity is only a decade long, then no groundbreaking government programme will in such a short time be able to create the conditions for steady progress during the following relatively depressed decades. The 1970s saw not only no further progress in lunar access, but even the loss of the limited access that did exist.

If Dr Cordell and his co-workers are right, the period 2015-2025 could see doubled and tripled government space budgets, with multiple manned landings on the Moon and even Mars. But by the same token, the late 2020s and 2030s will see retreat and retrenchment, with events on Earth dominated by economic depression and war. A new conspiracy theory will emerge: astronauts never really landed on Mars at all!

Therefore the hope that manned exploration can leap ahead in a renewed age of Camelot is ultimately an illusion. It may indeed -- but if it does, it will quickly fall behind again, with the loss of most of the capabilities gained during the decade of ebullient expansion.

There is no alternative to the slow and steady build-up of commercially viable infrastructure in manned spaceflight, from which the return to the Moon, when it eventually comes, will be genuinely affordable and sustainable, and will remain so throughout the ups and downs of the economic cycle.

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Astronautical Evolution is an e-mail forum devoted to debate and comment from an astronautical evolutionist perspective. To subscribe / unsubscribe / contribute / comment, please e-mail Stephen Ashworth, sa--at--astronist.demon.co.uk.


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