Newt Gingrich’s up and down campaign to be the GOP presidential nominee is likely to flame out today in Florida. After unexpectedly dominating the South Carolina primary, his political fortunes have wilted under an unrelenting barrage of attacks. In particular, Gingrich’s recent promise to build a permanent American base on the moon provoked many savage gibes. But a moon base is more than, say, an appealing exile for obnoxious politicians. Gingrich’s proposal is roughly aligned with what President Obama and many experts have been advocating for years.
When President Obama released his plan for NASA that cancelled the over-budget and behind-schedule Constellation program, aerospace lobbyists and even some Apollo astronauts hysterically declared that America’s space agency was dying. Reality could not have been more different: President Obama is reigniting an exciting exploration program and enabling the commercialization of space. Gingrich, who claims (and actually has) a longstanding involvement in space policy, heralded the administration’s new course for NASA as “the real change that Americans are seeking” in a 2010 column in The Washington Times. A return to the moon, while not something NASA is currently planning, would not be a dramatic deviation from existing policy.
Constructing a permanent lunar base within this decade is technically possible. NASA would simply need to adapt proven technologies from the Apollo and International Space Station programs. If Congress appropriated between $100 and $200 billion, few doubt that astronauts could soon begin building lunar condos, although the 13,000 colonists Gingrich joked about last Wednesday might not leave Earth anytime soon. The only serious obstacles to returning to the moon are political and economic.
There is little public appetite to relive NASA’s glory days through more quick jaunts to the moon. But people are always interested in profit, and what Gingrich and others are proposing is strictly business. An army of astronauts and robots would descend on the moon to mine resources that are not readily available on Earth. Once government programs demonstrate that doing so is possible and perhaps profitable, private industry will have strong incentive to take over, freeing NASA to continue pushing the envelope in other areas of space.
Sustainable outposts could harvest water and the ingredients of rocket propellant from the moon to support extraterrestrial habitats and transportation systems, according to visionary scientists like the Lunar and Planetary Institute’s Paul Spudis. Producing resources on site is desirable because hauling supplies out of Earth’s strong gravitational field is expensive.
Billions of years of solar wind may have embedded high concentrations of helium-3, a rare isotope in high demand for nuclear fusion research, in the moon’s surface. Reasonable, educated people believe that lunar mining could pave the way for inexpensive, safe and non-polluting energy production on Earth.
Gingrich, even if he doesn’t realize it, nails the economic rationale for returning to the moon, but his space policy contains serious weaknesses. He expresses little enthusiasm for unmanned missions, although these are relatively inexpensive and efficient. Two spacecraft, collectively called GRAIL (Gravity Recovery and Interior Laboratory), are currently orbiting the moon to map its gravitational field, which will elucidate its evolution and help explain the formation of terrestrial planets.
Sadly, Gingrich seems to prefer unilateral space exploration despite the almost limitless potential for international cooperation in space. The Space Race is over. Politicians should want NASA to avoid fear-mongering and instead to ally with the China National Space Administration to accomplish missions. With help from other countries, American astronauts and scientists can accomplish otherwise impossible feats.
Massive federal spending is important for much more than space exploration. Gingrich’s own logic — the federal government needs to sponsor economic projects of national importance until the private sector is capable of taking over — can be applied to everything from high-speed rail to housing development. Unfortunately, Gingrich, along with the vast majority of the GOP, is committed to slashing non-defense discretionary spending.
So Gingrich’s critics should back off when it comes to Newt’s support of a vigorous space program. Committing to a permanent base on the moon seems rash, but it may be wise if lunar resources are as abundant as scientists hope. More important, Gingrich’s full-throated embrace of government spending to promote economic development should be applauded. If all American policymakers had such feelings, not only would people explore the far reaches of space, but life here on Earth might actually be improved.
Joseph O’Rourke is a senior in Silliman College. His column runs on alternate Tuesdays. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.