Gingrich: Terrible President on Earth, Great One in Space

President Obama's attempts to reform NASA have been gestures in the right direction, but he has been tepid in this, as in so many other things. But a President Gingrich might be able to get real money for space.
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Take just about any issue on Earth and I disagree vehemently with Newt Gingrich's policy position. His disingenuous expressions of anti-elitism infuriate me daily, and his runaway hypocrisy embodies everything that's wrong with the political process. But the man said he was going to build a moon base, and for that, he's just about got my vote.

When Gingrich reiterated his plans to build a permanent American base on the moon, a hue and cry went up. Lawrence Krauss at Slate responded with dispassionate analysis of the costs and benefits, and concluded that Gingrich's idea for a moon base is "wasteful and scientifically unsound." This is true. We should build one anyway. For my generation, the Challenger blowing up was what Kennedy's assassination, or Martin Luther King's, were to previous generations -- the defining public tragedy of my childhood, and one of the first memories I have.

I grew up outside Washington, DC, and when my father had to work on a weekend, he'd take me into town with him, and leave me alone at the Air and Space Museum for the day. Nobody had the patience to stay there with me, scrutinizing the details of every exhibit. I'd walk, over and over again, through the passageway on the backup Skylab they had on display. It was an old friend by then. When I was a toddler, my mother would read me to sleep every day from a book about Skylab, which had been shortsightedly allowed to burn up in the atmosphere a few months before I was born. I was giddy at the chance to walk inside a real space station, but sad that the only reason I could do so was that budget cutbacks had kept the backup from fulfilling its intended purpose as a second orbiting station, and it ended up in a museum instead.

As Kenneth Chang points out in the New York Times, there is no doubt that a moon base is technically feasible. It would just be really expensive. It's downright weird that an otherwise reactionary politician who advocates a minimal role for government would be in favor of such a massive government program, but the world is a weird place. And there is no doubting Gingrich's sincerity in this matter: as Charles Homans writes, he has a long history of support for radical space ideas, having proposed a moon base in his 1984 book, Window of Opportunity: A Blueprint for the Future.

That was the year that Ronald Reagan announced plans for the Space Station Freedom in his State of the Union Speech. Freedom was never built, though I did get a poster of it for my childhood bedroom. I got another poster when they scaled Freedom back and renamed it Alpha. By the time Alpha became the International Space Station, I was becoming a teenager. Though my dad drove me to space camp in Huntsville, Alabama -- next to NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center -- I was fast growing disillusioned. Adults found my outsize enthusiasm for space naive. "There are problems on Earth," they'd say, and then rattle off a laundry list of objections that depended on their political bent. Sometimes it was the shortfalls in our schools, or starvation in Africa. Others times it was the fear of a profligate government wasting taxpayer dollars. But I'd tell them then -- and still believe now -- that problems on Earth will always be here. If we waited to solve them, we would be waiting forever. I want to be able to dream the way the previous generation had, to dream the way my father dreamt when, in a crowd on a sidewalk in a provincial Greek city, he watched Neil Armstrong walk on the moon on a storefront TV.

For technologically minded youth of my generation, the space program has been nothing but a series of missed opportunities. Each time NASA let one of the space shuttle's external fuel tanks burn up in the atmosphere instead of giving it the little extra boost that would have kept it in orbit and let it be a building block for a huge space station, I'd burn up a little bit too. NASA, in its dotage, has started naming its telescopes after bureaucrats (James Webb) instead of scientific pioneers (Hubble). The gods Apollo and Mercury have grown ever more distant, as thinking that space exploration is one of the vital roles of government moved from the mainstream to the fringe. Exciting times are finally coming in space; Paul Allen's ambitious Stratolaunch, if it gets built, will be the largest airplane in the world, and will launch a rocket from between two Boeing 747 fuselages. Virgin Galactic might start flying tourists to the edge of Earth's atmosphere this year.

But exciting as these private efforts are, they aren't going to get people anywhere new. They will be getting new (and more) people to the same places. But, for all the discourse of the innovativeness of industry, they will be building on the shoulders of over half a century of government-funded efforts to get to space. Space pioneers have always been sent by governments. For some time, they will continue to be. The government has to go to the moon again before industry can. I don't believe Gingrich when he says he could do it on the cheap, but he might be crazy enough to do it on the expensive. And it would be enormously expensive. (Although there may be something to the idea that private enterprise could do things substantially more cheaply.) But going to the moon won't have scientific or technological benefits that justify this expense in the short run.

In the short run, the only justification is the fact that it would be an enormously exciting thing to do. Like other aspects of Gingrich's candidacy, its appeal is emotional, not rational. Going to the moon would help restore America's faith in government (though this might be counterproductive for Gingrich's political aims).

In the long run, there is a concrete pay-off. Clichéd though it may be to say so, an asteroid or comet really could slam into Earth and destroy life as we know it. One could argue that we have a moral obligation, as the world's richest country, to develop an active and aggressive space program that would allow us to deal with this unlikely eventuality.

President Obama's attempts to reform NASA have been gestures in the right direction, but he has been tepid in this, as in so many other things. A President Gingrich might be able to get real money for space, even as he covers a massive government-spending program with the rhetoric of privatization. He might be able to actually build his moon base, maybe even get us to Mars. Gingrich would be a disaster here on Earth. But from 60 miles up, where the atmosphere thins out and space begins, from there to the edge of the solar system, he could be the best president we've ever had. And for that, I'd vote for him. Unless, that is, Obama can outflank him starward. I'd forgotten this for a long time, and it took Newt Gingrich to remind me, but you can always dream.

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