GRINNELL, IOWA—The emerging narrative for Newt Gingrich is that that he is an unstable politician prone to indulging in crazy theories more fitting a fantasy author than a presidential contender. He's been doing his best Chicken Little impression for years, running around warning about the threat of an EMP attack knocking out the nation's electrical grid (hint: it's not much of a threat). And, he is such a Steven Spielberg fan that he became convinced that the U.S. should invest in building a real-life “Jurassic Park.”
During the debate last weekend, Newt's stance on space policy got Mitt Romney chuckling. "Places where we disagree?" Romney said in response to some prodding from debate moderator George Stephanopoulos. "Let's see, we can start with his idea to have a lunar colony that would mine minerals from the moon, I'm not in favor of spending that kind of money to do that." The Republicans in the crowd laughed it up with Romney, who had used a similar line of attack the day before during an editorial board interview with the Des Moines Register. "He even talked about a series of mirrors that we could put in space that would light our highways at night," Romney said of his opponent. "I’ve got some better ideas for our resources.”
The suggestion to light national highways with space mirrors is an outlandish idea, but Newt's take on moon exploration shouldn't be dismissed so easily. NASA has been largely inactive on manned spaceflight ever since the introduction of the space shuttle. They continually send astronauts into low earth orbit to study how humans can survive in outer space for extended periods of time but offer no clear explanation for how that information will be implemented in later missions. Is it to colonize the moon? Land on Mars? Locate an asteroid and drag it around?
After the Space Shuttle disintegrated upon re-entry in 2004, George W. Bush announced a new vision for space policy and set a goal of returning to the moon by 2020. But it was a poorly executed idea lacking funding and purpose. We've already been to the moon a number of times, and though it would inspire imaginations to go back, NASA needs a specific reason to return. Many experts in the field argue—much along the same lines as Gingrich—that some form of permanent settlement must be the clear target for future space missions.
"We're talking about settlement," said Jeff Greason, president of XCOR Aerospace and a member of Obama's space review committee, at the International Space Development Conference last year. "It's actually the national policy of the United States that we should settle space." Greason went on to explain that during a time of budget cuts across the board, it will be necessary for NASA to work through public-private partnerships to monetize these new explorations. "The NASA budget is going to decline," Greason said. That budget is already at an extremely low level, with NASA's $18 billion in the 2010 budget amounting to less than the U.S. spends on air conditioning in Iraq and Afghanistan every year. Although Greason argued for building refueling stations between Earth and the moon, his idea to explore space for practical and monetary reasons follows Gingrich’s logic to pull resources from the moon.
"We're going to the moon to learn the skills to live and work productively on another world," said Paul Spudis of the Lunar and Planetary Institute at the same conference. He continued, "Ultimately, you want to thrive. You want not only to just get up there and survive and eke through a mission by gritting your teeth and holding it in for a week, you actually want to be able to create a product that makes money. You want to export product for profit. Effectively you want to create an economic sphere as part of your movement into space."
When Romney attacked Gingrich's space comments at the debate, Gingrich defended his ideas in terms of the space program’s inspirational qualities rather than the practical benefits of funding exploration. "I'm proud of trying to find things that give young people a reason to study science and math and technology and telling them that some day in their lifetime, they could dream of going to the moon," he said, "they could dream of going to Mars. I grew up in a generation where the space program was real, where it was important, and where frankly it is tragic that NASA has been so bureaucratized."
Gingrich is right to tout the imaginative qualities of landing on a different planet, but space exploration does more than just stimulate the mind. Researching ways to exploit the moon's resources would likely result in practical technologies for those of us who remain earthbound. Forms of reusable energy would be the most likely to benefit, but the next discovery could reshape daily life such as Internet GPS or Tang has done. (Tang, sadly, was only popularized by the space program and not actually invented by NASA.) But it will take a direct vision to reach that end, and Gingrich is far ahead of his Republican opponents—as well as the incumbent president—in articulating those ideas.