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On Cycles of Exploration

The latest Carnival of Space is now available, with several items of particular interest to those of us fixated on deep space from the edge of the Solar System to nearby stars. Have a look, for example, at this take (from Astronomy at the CCSSC) on Makemake, a dwarf planet in the newly minted IAU sense, and also a plutoid, meaning a dwarf planet outside Neptune’s orbit. Or try Starts with a Bang, where the speculation runs to placing human crews on long-haul starships using artificial incubators and frozen embryos, a subject we recently touched on in these pages.

My attention was particularly drawn to Bruce Cordell’s piece on How Great Explorations Really Work, in an intriguing site called 21st Century Waves. Here the idea is that great exploratory projects (think Apollo, for example) do not happen at random times, but tend to cluster around a 56-year energy cycle that coincides with major economic booms. My experience with the stock market tells me that when anyone identifies a major cycle, that’s a sure sign that the cycle will not work the next time around (sort of a Heisenberg uncertainty principle for macro-scale behaviors). But the idea is interesting and pegs our human urge to explore. As in this:

In this model, the assertion of anthropologists that humans are by nature explorers — because of their 200,000 year history of exploration and expansion — is adopted. In the last 200 years, the explorer’s impulse can’t often be indulged by typical individuals because of economic and security (Maslow) pressures. However, during the twice-per-century major economic booms, widespread affluence elevates society to the higher levels of Maslow’s heirarchy. Thus for a brief period (called a “Maslow Window“), society reaches a semi-rational (almost giddy) state of “ebullience,” where Great Explorations are not just favored by most people, but seem almost irresistable.

However, ebullience rapidly decays as the economic boom slows, or as a major war (which typically occurs at these times) threatens peace and security.

Whatever my doubts about identifying such ‘windows,’ I think the observation about public fixation on exploration is exactly correct. Anyone with a passion to see our society build a space-based infrastructure anywhere beyond Earth’s orbit has to cope with today’s apparent public disinterest. That can be discouraging, but it can also be dangerous when we’re weighing the odds on our planet being struck by near-Earth objects. There are times when ebullience may not carry the day but self-interest must still kick in. Big space rocks don’t wait on human cycles.

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • James M. Essig July 19, 2008, 19:44

    Hi Paul;

    Excellent article! I could not agree with you more.

    Perhaps the discovery of a large rock with Earth’s name on it is indeed just what we need to spur the development of long term human space exploratory missions. Another possibility could be economic chaos or political turmoil, and the unfortunate occurrence of “wars or rumors of wars”, resulting from any climatic disruption based on global warming. Such scenarios might instill in our collective political leadership the need to strongly support manned outposts and then colonies on the Earth’s moon, on Mars, in solar orbit and beyond for the survival of our species.

    What would be really cool would be any future statements made by any major religious figures such as Pope Benedict XVI of the need for humanity to reach out into the solar system and beyond, not just in support for the pro-life mindset of the Catholic Faith, but for the survival of humanity. I personally would be pleased by such statements made from any religious leader of significant influence. I think such statements would really resonate with the majority of Earth’s inhabitants since most of humanity has a highly integrated faith-based or religion based value system which acts as a strong motivator and a behavioral self-regulation system.

    For those persons who profess no faith-based creeds, and who are space heads, no such faith-based motivation is needed to spur them on to advocate for and support manned space exploration and colonization.



  • Adam July 20, 2008, 2:44

    Hi Paul

    There’s a lot of threats to the planet which *might* cause a major retrogression even if the planetary biosphere is largely untouched. I think if the wider public knew how vulnerable the whole system we live in was to perturbations – like the current oil pain – then they might start seriously thinking about off-world colonization as a means of “backing-up” human society.

    But… how to fund the damn thing to start with? The last thing a major move into space needs to be is subjected to the whims and vagaries of the “free market”/speculative crapshoot which so many politicians and demagogues almost worship as God-on-Earth.

    “Sorry Mars Colony, but you’re all going to run out of funding before self-sufficiency… better come home for the duration of the next Depression…”

  • Bruce Cordell July 20, 2008, 9:17

    Thanks for your interest in my website.

    The exploration/MEP wave that I noticed over the last 200 years is basically economically driven. This long wave in the economy (55-60 year period) has been known for a long time, and even correlates with the popular generational waves of Strauss and Howe, but because they are much longer than election or funding cycles, they are commonly ignored (e.g., in the media). So the “secret” is safe and they will continue to work for some time.

    I used to worry a lot more about “public disinterest” when I was in the aerospace business (General Dynamics) than I do now. There was enormous interest in Lewis & Clark; their notebooks sold like hotcakes. And Americans couldn’t stop wondering about Dr. Livingstone in Africa so they sent Stanley to find the guy. And the level of international obsession about the 1909-11 polar expeditions was almost beyond belief…Not to mention Apollo. When the good times return, — which they always do — the public’s ascent up the Maslow heirarchy will again power enormous interest in all things space!

    With all the bad economic news, it’s easy to forget that in summer, 2007 Fortune magazine said the world was experiencing “the greatest economic boom ever.” And in a few years, we’ll pick right up where we left off, just like we have for the last 200 years.

  • ad July 20, 2008, 12:14

    Either an activity has a material return, or it does not. No investor seriously expects to make money out of colonizing the moon, so they won’t.

    As for curiosity as a motive: why should scientists who explore the moon get any more public money than historians who explore the past?

  • dad2059 July 21, 2008, 9:47

    Hmmm, interesting take on exploration cycles and one that makes sense.

    I’d like to point out these things also depend on what kind of political leadership happens to be on the scene at the time. Adam and ad made valid points.

  • Hiro July 21, 2008, 17:45

    Maybe we have to wait until China sends someone to Mars, then we’ll see another new version of the space race. This time we should expand to Jupiter or Saturn (if the robotic submarine finds a fish a something on Europa, then……)