Big Ideas in Small Times

I will get back to my series on the "Why?" of space later this week. In the meantime, knowing that by the end of the week the issue will be used up and gone for a bit, I must comment on the Newt Gingrich space speech in Florida and the public reaction to it.

Putting aside who it was speaking, what was presented in the speech as to our future in space is actually good stuff. We need to open the frontier between the Earth and Moon to large scale human activities, we need to establish human outposts and communities off the Earth and begin the job of doing so right away -- and do so largely based on letting the people take over most of the jobs.

We need Big Ideas, as we are in a time of small people, and as Kennedy showed with Apollo, doing something grand in space is the Biggest. At a time of huge national doubt and fear of losing our leadership as a nation to others, it focused us, gave us something positive and inspired a generation.

As a kid growing up during that era my parents' TV was flooded with anti-Vietnam riots, race battles and a cacophony of Cold War stories competing with depressing diatribes about the end of the world as we knew it. And yet, there, in the midst of the nightly news (in those days, the source of almost all news) would be a shining story about the next step being taken on our way to the moon. A launch of new vehicle, a spacewalk, a new human spaceflight record... it didn't matter, I would zoom into the living room with big eyes and go to bed that night inspired. And I wasn't alone. Sprinkled throughout the generation that grew up in the 1960s and 1970s were others who were driven to study hard, and reach for impossible dreams -- because if we can put a Man on the Moon....

By the end of the century these space geeks and nerds had finished school and founded companies like Microsoft, Apple, PayPal, Google and others.... And now many of them are building rocketships of their own as they continue the quest. Be it Jeff Bezos of Amazon, Elon Musk of PayPal, John Carmack, creator of Quake and Doom, or Paul Allen of Microsoft, they are standing on the shoulders of the giants of Apollo and reaching for the stars. Along with Branson and the owner of Budget Suites and a myriad of others who are bending metal and putting their own bucks into the quest to be the new Buck Rogers, they believe in Big Ideas and are doing something about it -- in space.

And so, finally, as others bemoan the death of American leadership, a candidate has the hubris to invoke a grand dream and the media and others pile on. Yes, much of their criticism is because of the man himself, but there is also an element of "how dare you" in their words, an air of insult that at such a time of national mediocrity anyone should suggest we do something grand, and worse, that we would let private, yes he said it -- "commercial" firms join NASA in leading the way.

BTW, Obama got there first, and has begun to end the going in circles pork-based NASA programs that have wasted billions of dollars and years of time since we went to the moon the first time. He blew the roll out of his program, allowing the old school (who now have all joined the Romney team) to characterize his actions as the end of US space when it was really meant to be the beginning of a new space age. He said some dumb things about the moon. He appointed a ghost as his administrator. He has let Congress gut his plans to hand off transport to space to commercial firms and he laid out a fairly timid path forward, but he did get the core elements right -- and Gingrich includes many of the same ones.

Obama did take action first though, and interestingly, Newt Gingrich and Robert Walker actually came out in support of his initiative -- for about thirty seconds -- before realizing Republicans are not supposed to support anything Obama does, and that most of those defending the socialist approach to space we have followed since Apollo were indeed Republicans... (Oops!) And of course now the reverse is true, as the liberal side ridicules the concept simply because it came out of the mouth of an avowed rightist.

But the politics of this isn't the important thing. The sad thing, the pathetic thing, about the whole episode, is that over 40 years after we put the first American on the moon the idea that in 10 more we might have a moonbase is considered radical and far out.

This is the real story. This is the point that demonstrates how bad a state we are in as a nation, how badly we have lost our way, and how important it is that we understand and support whoever pushes us UP and out to the frontier -- at least on this one issue.

Forty three years ago we landed on a new world, and we blew it. We had it, and we dropped it.

I would just ask you for one moment to imagine what today would be like if we had built on that landing by creating a permanent and growing community there and moved on to Mars. What would it be like to be an American schoolkid today (or a kid anywhere on Earth for that matter) if you could look up at the lights of cities on the moon and see reports on your cell phone of our expanding presence on Mars?

What might the campaign season be like if the trending topics in today's news were how the mining of platinum from asteroids was affecting the price of cell chips, or the cost of power being beamed from solar plants in space competing with carbon fuels, the unionization of orbital workers or the end of Parkinson's disease due to new micro gravity research breakthroughs?

We need our reach to exceed our grasp. We need a generation that says "If we can put a city on the moon why can't we..." as it calls us forth to do better in all things. Big ideas? Hell, we don't have enough of them. And to ridicule those you are simply too timid or short-sighted to embrace, at a time when you need them so badly is ludicrous.

Sanity is a relative thing, and saying we will at last do what we should have done long ago and do it based on empowering the people to do what they do best and by doing so calling out the best in us is actually one of the few sane things to have been said in this campaign. Crazy may not be the one who says the sun is the center of the solar system, the Earth is round and someday people might fly. It may be those who laugh at such words whose minds are lost.