The Moon Should Be the 51st State, and Other Space Dreams From Newt Gingrich
Rebecca Boyle
at 05:30 AM Jan 27 2012
The Moon Should Be the 51st State, and Other Space Dreams From Newt Gingrich
Newt Gingrich
Gage Skidmore
Science // 

At the sunset of Newt Gingrich's putative presidency, the moon would be the 51st state, colonised by permanent American settlers. Tourists would honeymoon in low-Earth orbit, space factories would manufacture goods in microgravity, and America would have a rocket powerful enough to send us to Mars.

This is all according to a discussion Gingrich hosted Wednesday in Florida, which holds its presidential primary next Tuesday and which lost thousands of jobs as the space shuttle program drew to a close last year. But this is Gingrich talking, so it's safe to say this isn't all politics. A self-professed space nut and fan of science, Gingrich has dreamt of a lunar colony for decades. Even if this dream is inherently irrational:

"The reason you have to have a bold and large vision is you don't arouse the American nation with trivial, bureaucratically rational objectives," Gingrich said.

It's odd for a politician to trump his own ideas as grandiose and not rational. But hey, going back to the moon sure fires up the patriots! So America's space goals are once again a political football - one, incidentally, that seems to rev up Republicans more than it does Democrats. Gingrich has a long list of space dreams, which we'll get to in a minute. But this debate brings to light an interesting volley since the Reagan administration, between Democratic presidents who seem not to really dwell on America's space ambitions and Republican presidents (and would-be presidents) who just love the idea of Americans on the moon.

Dubbing himself a "visionary" for his space plans, the former House speaker and GOP presidential hopeful compared himself to John F. Kennedy, Abraham Lincoln and the Wright brothers. But he didn't compare himself to another conservative Republican, George W. Bush, who also wanted the US to go back to the moon as a launch pad for Mars. His new vision was gestated in the wake of the Columbia disaster, and centered on the retirement of the aging shuttles, but it also sought a more ambitious future for the space agency. The Constellation program never really got off the ground, however, and critics found plenty of faults.

But contrast this with Bill Clinton's presidency. While he was in the Oval Office, the US partnered with Russia to build the International Space Station - certainly a major achievement, but it was arguably more impressive for its geopolitics than its science scope. Both countries already had space stations before, and the ISS took way more time and money to build than anyone had anticipated. Otherwise, Clinton apparently didn't have much to say about the space program, even in his autobiography "My Life."

Then, a while after taking office and organising a blue-ribbon NASA review commission, President Obama harrumphed at the idea of returning to the moon - "we've been there before," he famously said - and charted a bumpy course for a future NASA that will eventually visit an asteroid and someday Mars.

Now Gingrich has set his sights back on our natural satellite, with a much tighter timeline. But there is one catch - he favours private development, not necessarily NASA leadership.

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