When a Chinese astronaut is the first man on Mars, we may have Newt Gingrich to thank.
The lunar enthusiast and presidential candidate launched his personal space program at just the wrong time: As his campaign came crashing down around him in Florida. Space became a symbol not of his vision and optimism, but of his fecklessness. The dream has become, said Adam Keiper, a conservative student of the space program, “a laughingstock.”
Mitt Romney, for one, can’t get enough of the joke.
“The idea of the moon as the 51st state is not on my mind,” the former governor said Monday morning in Jacksonville, openly mocking his Republican rival.
And on a rare moment that the American space program got broad attention in the popular culture, mockery was everywhere.
“He wants to leave the earth for a younger planet,” speculated The Daily Show’s Jon Stewart.
The real American space program has been adrift for more than a decade now, alternating between presidential pronouncements and budget cuts. President George W. Bush planned a return to the moon, but didn’t give the program the resources advocates hoped for. President Obama scrapped Bush’s plan in favor of promoting a private sector future farther out in space, but also cut back dramatically in the face of a budget crisis.
Now the space program’s best hope for a return is to recapture the imagination of an American public and a president, and Gingrich’s stirring invocations of the Kennedy-era space race seemed its best bet in years.
Instead, a week later, space policy experts and enthusiasts are shaking their heads and tallying the damage. At best, Gingrich squandered a real opportunity to reinvigorate the program.
“Gingrich, if he made it not sound crazy — which he did — could have used this,” lamented Arlin Crotts, a Columbia astronomer and space travel backer. “But now — Gingrich just can’t control himself sometimes.”
Others believe the former Speaker did lasting harm to his pet cause.
“To treat building a base on the moon as a grandiose joke, as the media and many conservatives are doing, is really sad,” said a senior aide to a member of the pro-space Florida Congressional delegation. “Regardless of what happens to Newt, I'm afraid he's poisoned the issue for at least a decade, and really set back the future of human space exploration.”
Space turns up at the forefront of politics only occasionally, and often when politicians are campaigning in Florida’s “Space Coast,” where NASA is a major employer. That’s where Gingrich chose to make it a centerpiece of his campaign and of his self-described “grandiose,” quintessentially American vision.
"By the end of my second term, we will have a permanent colony on the moon and it will be American," Gingrich promised.
Experts are split on the desirability of the lunar base or colony for which Gingrich has been calling since the 1980s, but most agree it could be done.
“Gingrich's proposal to build a lunar base is technically feasible and, depending on how ambitious it is, financially feasible,” said Keiper, who is a fellow Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington and the editor of The New Atlantis. “We could certainly begin a permanent settlement on the moon within a decade, especially if that were the agency's primary goal during that decade.”
Some scientists in the contentious field argue, though, that the nation that was first to the moon would waste its time racing with China, which has its own lunar plans.
“Why the hell would we be in a race with the Chinese to be the second nation on the moon when we’ve already been there first,” asked Robert Farquhar, a longtime space exploration researcher who is an executive at the firm KinetX. “Gingrich doesn’t know what the hell he’s talking about – he’s pandering to the people in the Kennedy Space Center area.”
For those who favor a return to the moon – like Romney’s key space advisers, who also advised Bush – Romney’s attack was a bit more carefully couched than it appeared.
"If I had a business executive come to me and say I want to spend a few hundred billion dollars to put a colony on the moon, I'd say, 'You're fired,"' Romney said during a debate last week.
But Gingrich hadn’t suggested spending hundreds of millions on the moon — that’s a very high estimate of what it would cost NASA, not the kind of commercial venture Gingrich imagines.
The idea is you can go back to the moon for $15 billion or $20 billion or something in that range,” said Howard McCurdy, a space policy expert at American University in Washington, who described Gingrich approvingly as “a real space cadet.”
But politicians learn fast, and the lesson of Gingrich's woes may be: Don't even try it.
"Gingrich's pronouncement was was the kind of big-picture statement we're more likely to hear these days from the Chinese, or Indians," said Rick Wilson, a Florida Republican political consultant and space enthusiast. "I fear that the political lesson Romney takes from this is that vision isn't relevant, and that NASA is just a make-work, center-driven program to dole out goodies in Florida, Ohio, Virginia, and California."
And so the field of space marches on. Scientists and their boosters are meeting in Charleston, South Carolina today, in fact, for the American Astronautical Society’s annual Space Flight Mechanics meeting.
But the program has again dropped off the political radar screen, except perhaps as the new template for a political attack. President Obama, for instance, often talks about using the money being spent in foreign wars for “nation-building right here at home.”
“In real life budgets don't work that way, so it's a completely bogus argument,” said Keiper. “But it's a somewhat effective sound bite, and probably even more devastating when your opponent seems to be calling for nation-building on the moon.”
The deeper problem, he said, is that space no longer has a public constituency.
“Space has become a laughingstock for a week, thanks to the Gingrich-Romney spat,” he said. “But, sadly, in a few days, things will revert to their normal state - and nobody will care one way or the other.”