Fly Newt to the Moon

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The emergence of a debate about colonizing the moon might be the goofiest-sounding idea in Republican primaries since Herman Cain proposed an electrified fence along the southern border. The difference is that returning to the moon is an idea that reasonable people take seriously.

Campaigning in Florida this week, Gingrich proposed establishing a colony on the moon by “the end of my second term.” The ridicule came fast and funny (“Did he start with a Death Star and get kind of reigned in?” asked Jon Stewart.) But as the Guardian‘s Alok Jha explains, the idea isn’t totally off the wall:

There are good scientific reasons for such a base that could, among other things, measure cosmic rays, hunt for exotic subatomic particles in space and look for asteroids on a collision course with Earth. A moon base could also be used as a platform for monitoring the Earth’s oceans and ice caps.

It’s worth noting that TIME’s Jeffrey Kluger, who knows more about these issues than I do, is less charitable. But remember: In 2004 George W. Bush also proposed returning to the moon, and using it as a platform for a Mars mission. “We choose to explore space because doing so improves our lives and lifts our national spirit,” Bush declared. Admittedly, this Iraq-era burst of grand ambition caused plenty of head-scratching, and the plans were eventually shelved. The main problem was money: As Jha notes NASA spending peaked at 3.45% of the federal budget in the 1970s. Today the figure is around 0.5%.

Gingrich insists a moon colony can be constructed by unleashing private enterprise. He offered the highly improbably vision of “five or six” space private launches a day. Maybe there are companies that would leap at the opportunity if given the proper grants and incentives (though that sounds almost like socialist industrial policy to me!). Even so, it’s nearly impossible to imagine anyone allowing for actual construction on the moon under private, as opposed to government, auspices. We’ll leave aside the sticky international law questions for now.

Maybe the real point here is the fact that Gingrich can only defend his idea as a private venture, even though many of the America’s greatest achievement, like the original space mission, the federal highway system, and the atomic bomb,were the product of grand–and expensive–federal action. Gingrich says hisĀ  space program would be “the second great launch of the adventure John F. Kennedy started.” But that adventure was a government one, not a private one.

And this reveals a key tension in Gingrich’s platform. He wants America to continue doing great things–but his budget plan would leave us with a government that has little ability to support them. Gingrich’s tax plan would slash federal revenues and drive up the deficit by as much as $1 trillion per year, according to one estimate. That will require even bigger cuts. You need to accept the supply-side doctrine, one held by Newt’s top economic advisors, that big tax cuts will pay for themselves to think that America can tackle huge new projects under a Gingrich administration, unless you assume that the still-struggling private sector will suddenly explode with activity. Maybe in the next debate, someone can ask him to square his grand aspirations with the realities of his budget vision.