Looking to the Past To Predict Next Space Age


As we search for clues to America’s economic future by looking for parallels between our recent great recession and the past (e.g., the 1930s), it’s logical to also seek historical parallels relating to other great events that are strongly dependent on economic conditions. One example is the manned space program, and specifically human spaceflight to the Moon and Mars.

Viewed in this context, President Barack Obama’s cancellation of Constellation — the U.S. program to return to the Moon by 2020 — was not a big surprise. It appears to be merely a speed bump on the road to near-term international commercial and scientific development of Earth-Moon space and even humans to Mars.

This glimpse of the future is not based on hope or optimism, but on long-term trends in the economy, technology and geopolitics that point to a near-term reignition of President John F. Kennedy’s 50-year-old vision of human exploration of the Moon and planets.

The 1960s Apollo Moon program was the greatest combined exploration and technology event in the history of the world, because it was off-world! If we could understand what fundamentally drove it, we might glimpse our future in space. And yet, as we discovered again during celebrations of the Moon landing’s 40th anniversary, we still can’t agree on why Apollo Moon-walking ended in 1972.

For example, “Right Stuff” author Tom Wolfe believes “the answer is obvious. NASA had neglected to recruit a corps of philosophers,” such as Saturn 5 designer Wernher von Braun, to explain the real meaning of Apollo to the public. In his Pulitzer Prize-winning 1985 book, “The Heavens and the Earth,” Walter McDougall explains that “the bold lunar goal … encouraged Congress and the nation to believe that Apollo was the space program. … Once the space race was over and won, Americans could turn back to their selfish pursuits.”

In a Space News op-ed, “We Aimed for The Stars … Until We Stopped” [Jan. 19, 2009, page 17], former CNN reporter Miles O’Brien dismisses the most obvious manned space challenge —  cost. “If you don’t want to mention the cost of the wars, if you would rather not get into Wall Street or Detroit bailouts, or if you don’t want to tell them the money we spend on the space program is about the same as our annual expenditure on coffee — why not mention India? … Calcutta can afford it — and Cleveland can’t?”

This is an important clue. Apollo cost about $150 billion in 2010 dollars. Imagine the Apollo-style space programs we could have funded with only a fraction of Obama’s nearly $1 trillion stimulus package. But although that money magically appeared, Americans did not spontaneously demand Moon bases or manned Mars missions. So the availability of money, by itself, does not fundamentally drive big space programs.

Wolfe alludes to powerful but short-lived forces permeating Apollo: “Everybody, including Congress, was caught up in the adrenal rush of it all.” This included the quintessential media figure of the time, Walter Cronkite, who predicted that after Apollo 11, “everything else that has happened in our time is going to be an asterisk.”

O’Brien concludes, “Truth is, we have done nothing to equal (much less top) the accomplishments of Apollo. And even worse, we haven’t tried. We did something truly great, but then walked away from it.”

This emotional component — and its rapid demise in the late 1960s — explains why money is not enough. The people also have to feel good.

This is reminiscent of a Keynesian concept called “animal spirits,” used to explain why investors become either irrationally exuberant or compulsively discouraged by business conditions during a boom or a bust. However, public support for Apollo was not primarily driven by the promise of profits from space, or in the end even by beating the Soviets to the Moon.

Instead, the unprecedented, widespread affluence from the Kennedy boom momentarily catapulted many average citizens to elevated levels of psychologist Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of human needs, where their expanded worldviews made the Apollo program seem not only intriguing but almost irresistible — as reflected in 1960s opinion polls.

The strong connection between manned planetary exploration and Maslow-related values was emphasized in 1961 by the National Academy of Science’s Space Science Board, chaired by Lloyd Berkner, in its influential report to President Kennedy. “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,” the report said.

But the Maslow effect was short-lived. As early as 1966, growing distress over Vietnam and budget issues began to erode affluence-induced “ebullience,” and this 1960s Apollo “Maslow Window” rapidly closed, as evidenced by President Richard Nixon’s cancellation of the last three Apollo Moon missions.

Last Memorial Day weekend in Chicago at the International Space Development Conference 2010, distinguished physicist Freeman Dyson lamented that “we have been stuck in [low Earth orbit] for 40 years.” In the context of Apollo, this is consistent with the absence — since the 1960s — of a post-World War II-style long boom culminating in widespread ebullience.

We almost got one started in 2007 when Fortune magazine celebrated the “greatest economic boom ever.” But it was interrupted by the financial panic of 2008 and our subsequent great recession. Will 2007’s great boom be revived? And how soon?

Intriguing parallels with Apollo go back at least 200 years to Lewis and Clark, but the last century is particularly revealing. For example, the financial panic of 1893 and the great 1890s recession may have more parallels with our current circumstances than the Apollo-related decades from 1950 to 1970. The 1890s featured a double-dip recession and unemployment above 10 percent, as well as a political realignment that led to a stunning Kennedy-style economic boom after 1899. The resulting early 20th century Maslow Window featured extraordinary ebullience, including “Panama fever” as the new canal split the continent and transformed America into a global power, “pole mania” as heroic international teams risked death to be the first to the poles, the civilization-altering first flights of the Wright brothers, and perhaps the most ebullient U.S. president ever: Theodore Roosevelt.

The trajectory of future history is not confined to a choice between the 1890-1913 panic/great recession model and the 1950-1973 Apollo example. But significantly, they both point to another golden age of prosperity, exploration and technology that’s just around the corner.

The persistent historical pattern of rhythmic, twice-per-century Maslow Windows over the last 200-plus years since Lewis and Clark — including the panic/great recession pairs that typically occur a few years before the Maslow Windows open — points to a new international Space Age that should gain momentum by 2015.


Bruce Cordell writes and speaks on future trends in space exploration and technology and is co-founder of 21stCenturyWaves.com, which monitors key events and global trends in the economy, technology and geopolitics.