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.