On Wednesday, Newt Gingrich appeared before an audience on Florida's Space Coast to extol his proposal for a permanent American colony on the moon by 2020, and his even more science-fiction plans to pass a "Northwest Ordinance for Space" that would allow Moonies to petition for status as a U.S. state once the population hit 13,000 (see video above).
Many will be tempted to make fun of this. They might say, for example, that Gingrich's space plans are right in line with GOP energy policy because if we continue to "drill, baby, drill" with no consideration of the climate impacts, we'll need to be well versed in surviving hostile planetary environments. They might start calling Gingrich President Moonbeam, or suggesting that Newt move moonward to become the colony's leader. But I'm not going there, because as Gingrich points out, John F. Kennedy was a moon visionary too, and there's nothing wrong with dreaming big about space exploration. Plus, it reminded me of being 12.
In 1975, my favorite TV show was "Space: 1999," a space opera about a team of colonists on the moon who become unwitting galactic explorers when the moon is blasted out of Earth's orbit. It was fun and inoffensive '70s fare starring Barbara Bain, who looked pretty hot in a jumpsuit, and husband Martin Landau, and its major innovation in my mind was the development of ray guns that looked like hand staplers, allowing me to play moon colonist with my parents' Swingline. But here's the thing about that show: It actually posited a better reason why America would want to build a colony on the moon than Gingrich has.
Why did the moon in "Space: 1999" get blasted out of orbit? Because the moon was being used as a storage repository for the Earth's nuclear waste, and for reasons I don't recall, the radioactive dump exploded with such force that it sent the moon soaring out of the solar system. Five minutes' thought will expose the silliness of this notion: Can you imagine the expense of shuttling barrels of nuclear waste all the way to the moon? Or the risk of an accident that would spread radioactive waste all over Cape Canaveral? But this was sci-fi, and that was such a minor plot point in a show that was really about strange encounters with shape-shifting aliens that it was easy to take for granted.
Gingrich's candidacy, unfortunately, is not sci-fi, so he's obliged to come up with a justification for his moon plans that's at least as reasonable as the one dreamed up by a 1975 TV show's writing staff. He fails the test. His apparent reason for setting out on an eight-year, phenomenally expensive moon colony quest, even as he proposes cutting taxes and slashing other government programs, is to stick it to the Chinese. Gingrich wants America to dominate space exploration and, in the course of getting there, produce technologies that will have useful commercial and military applications, just as the Apollo program of the 1960s did. This would establish our dominance over China in these areas, just as we beat Russia on the first moon walk.
Apparently, Gingrich is recalling his days as a 12-year-old too. Back then, we were in the midst of a paranoia-fueled Cold War with the Soviet Union. The space race was born out of fears that the Soviets would surpass us in missile technology. Yet not only are we not in any such contest with the Chinese, there are much better ways to remain dominant in satellite, missile and other technologies than working to establish a moon colony -- we could invest directly in research and development of these systems, rather than the esoteric technologies needed to sustain life in a low-gravity, oxygen-free lunar environment, which doesn't really have a lot of applications here on planet Earth. Moreover, there's little evidence that the moon contains minerals or other materials worth exploiting, at least not at the expense it would require to get at them.
There is, of course, some value in continuing to research manned spaceflight to the farther reaches of the solar system and beyond, and getting back to the moon first would be a nice start. But of all the spending priorities facing the U.S. Treasury in the midst of an economic downturn, this vision isn't just "grandiose," as Gingrich himself concedes -- it's absurd.
See you on the dark side of the moon, Newt.
-- Dan Turner