Hey, why shouldn’t we go to the moon?
Yes, Gingrich’s idea of turning the moon into the 51st state is wacky, but why is everyone so down on space exploration?
When Newt Gingrich outlined his plans for a permanent colony on the moon, commercial lunar tourism and spacecraft that can reach Mars, Ron Paul lost his position as America’s looniest presidential candidate. The crowd Gingrich addressed on Florida’s Space Coast cheered him on Wednesday, but come Thursday Mr Speaker was swiftly brought down to Earth by his fellow presidential hopefuls who, during a CNN debate, slated his plans as unrealistic. Ron Paul got a round of applause for quipping ‘we should send some politicians there’. The Twittersphere was abuzz with punchlines about Gingrich’s lunacy.
But hang on, why is the suggestion that we put men and women on the moon so easily brushed off as ridiculous? Why is it seen as impractical and wacky? Why is Gingrich depicted as some kind of stoned space cadet for even thinking of including manned space travel in his campaign promises?
Well, partly it’s because Gingrich’s proposals are impractical and wacky. He promised to establish a permanent lunar colony by the end of his second term – that would be in 2020. Once populated by 13,000 Americans, it would become the fifty-first state. Being unwilling to increase taxes, Gingrich would raise 90 per cent of the funding for his space programme from the corporate sector, which would help launch six to seven rockets a day. Evoking Cold War-era rhetoric, he said that the US must develop as much experience in space as soon as possible, so that the ‘Chinese and the Russians will never come anywhere close to match[ing] it’.
It does sound like something out of a patriotic sci-fi novel and it’s hard to see exactly how Gingrich envisions instituting his bold new era of interplanetary living. Will there be daily commercial space shuttles taking off from Earth; a lunar colony where corporations build roads, malls and movie theatres; thousands of people bouncing about, pioneering a bright new future of spacey living? It all seems pretty bizarre. After all, year 2020 is not the radically different era it appeared to be when a young Gingrich read sci-fi books and dreamed of outer space (he has said the fiction of Issac Asimov and Arthur C Clarke gave him a positive outlook and showed him the possibilities of the universe). Today, in a recession-hit 2012, year 2020 is a time that’s just around the corner – and most Americans are hoping they’ll get there without going broke.
Yet a key reason why Gingrich would be unlikely to get approval for even a fraction of his plans is that the very idea that America should develop a bold space exploration programme is anathema to today’s anti-exploratory, risk-averse, measurable outcomes-obsessed climate. Even entertaining the thought of breaching new frontiers is seen as the height of lunacy. It’s regarded as the stuff of naive fiction and dead politicians.
Yet great advances in science, expansions of human knowledge and technological developments have always happened against the odds and these have inspired wonder precisely because nobody could have imagined experiencing them.
Gingrich actually had a point when he said that John F Kennedy launched his space programme back in 1961 without yet having access to the technology needed to achieve his ambitions. He had a point when he reminded viewers that Charles Lindbergh flew to Paris for a prize of $25,000; it was an astonishing feat. He had a point when he reminded crowds in Florida of the development of the airlines in the 1930s, which has led to a kind of freedom of movement and exploration that people could barely dream about before that era.
Suspicion towards space exploration is not new, of course. Since the 1970s, it has variously been decried as a danger to peace and security, as a chauvinist enterprise, as a wasteful pursuit and as a threat to the environment. Yet pessimism and indifference to space discoveries are at an all-time high today. This became clear in the reaction – or lack of reaction, rather – to NASA’s announcement in December 2009 that water had been discovered on the moon. As Sean Collins pointed out on spiked at the time, this was ‘a giant leap towards fulfilling one of our collective fantasies, something only dreamed about in science fiction: humans living somewhere other than Earth’. It also made the moon a more likely base for manned missions to other parts of the solar system and NASA suggested the lunar water could hold a key to the history and evolution of the solar system. Yet, as Collins pointed out then, neither online pundits nor the mainstream media nor the authorities made a big deal out of the ground breaking discovery.
Seen in this context it was no surprise that Gingrich’s boasts were ridiculed. His plans for a space colony might have sounded like a good idea when he touted it to Florida’s struggling Space Coast. After all, when the Obama administration cancelled George W Bush’s plans to return American astronauts to the moon by 2020, it prompted protests from the communities that depend on NASA for their livelihood as well as from Apollo veterans. But it was no surprise that Gingrich was met with put-downs from most other quarters and that his ideas were entirely dismissed.
By and large, human achievements tend to be downplayed today. Exploring the unknown is seen as, at best, impractical and, at worst, reckless. When it comes to manned space exploration, the prevailing attitude is ‘been there, done that’. That’s why there’s been an unwillingness to separate Gingrich’s more wacky ideas – launching a new space race and establishing a permanent American outpost on the moon within eight years – from his sensible reminder that if we are to have any chance of making new discoveries and advances in the near or distant future, then we need to be willing at least to imagine that it’s possible and desirable to overcome the limits we face today.