I must ask the indulgence of this blog's international readership - nearly half of you - for dealing with something as parochial and terrestrial as the US presidential election.
Newt Gingrich is unique among prominent political figures, 'Murrican or otherwise, in that you could imagine him commenting at Rocketpunk Manifesto. Megalomania is an occupational hazard of politicians, but Newt is the only one I can think of whose delusions of grandeur (grandiosity?) were informed by the Foundation Trilogy, in particular Hari Seldon.
On the other hand, if I were a true-believing 'Murrican conservative, this would give me pause. The Seldon Plan uses both religion and free-market capitalism as mere tools to advance a (cosmopolitan and statist!) ulterior agenda: laying groundwork for the Second Galactic Empire. Those who cherish either religion or capitalism for its own sake should be on notice. (Apparently many already are; Newt is taking a ferocious battering from many quarters of the right.)
In any case, my specific pretext for talking about Newt here is his promise that, if he were elected, the US would have a permanent Moon base by 2020. At some unspecified later date, suggested Newt, the Moon could petition for statehood.
One liberal blogger had trouble deciding whether Newt was channeling his inner geek or just making an old fashioned pander. (He made the speech on Florida's Space Coast, hard-hit by the Shuttle retirement.) These are not mutually exclusive; it could be both!
Discover magazine called the lunar base impossible. In the technical sense it surely is possible - just enormously expensive. Which makes it politically impossible, in the current fiscal climate, especially in the absence of any credible plan to build public support for the plan.
The likelihood that Newt will be called on to make good on this promise is slim to none. The GOP nominee will almost certainly be Generic Republican, AKA Mitt Romney. (And I don't think it is pure wishful thinking on my part to suspect that President Obama will make short work of him in the fall.)
But Newt's lunar follies are not without consequences. The last prominent Republican to make reckless promises about the Moon was George Bush ('the Younger'). The circumstances were different. There is no evidence that Bush was ever a space geek. His proposal to return to the Moon was presumably thrown together by advisors who themselves were not space-minded, but merely looking for a Vision Thing [TM].
The results of this careless promise have been fairly dire. Bush got one speech out of it, then paid it no further visible attention. The public barely noticed, and soon forgot about the whole thing. No heed was given to the program's out-year costs, and the US was locked for several years into a gold-plated architecture that made billions for aerospace firms but ended up getting mostly canceled.
The upshot has been to leave the US with no operational human launch capability, and the fiasco significantly discredit the whole idea of human spaceflight. Newt Gingrich's legacy is to have further discredited it, at least modestly.
In longer historical perspective, yes, an argument can be made that a Democratic president, JFK, also overpromised in a way that set back the long term prospects of human spaceflight. I will argue that the post-Apollo stagnation is exaggerated, simply because Apollo was so spectacular, and also must be seen in the context of post-60s backlash and the great tragedy of Lyndon Johnson.
Also, of course, Apollo actually did go to the Moon, which should count for something in this discussion.
By sheer coincidence (or deep synchronicity), two readers brought to my attention a much more thoughtful space discussion by Gregory Benford. He is a far better writer and thinker than Newt Gingrich, but something about space makes him careless too. Mostly he rags on NASA, and it takes him less than 100 words to get from the fatal Shuttle losses to accusing the agency of being "safety obsessed."
Anyone who isn't "safety obsessed" really has no business going into space - and chances are strong that they'll never get there.
In fact, as I have pointed out before on this blog, we have made crucial strides in human spaceflight, and safety is at the heart of them. The ISS has operated for more than a decade without any mishap that required aborting its mission or emergency rescue from Earth. That is the single most important preparatory benchmark for human interplanetary spaceflight.
I'll also note - again, not for the first time - that NASA's robotic deep space exploration program has been a spectacular success, in spite of some embarrassments (feet ... meters ... oops!) along the way.
Yes, I wish we had scheduled commercial flights to the Moon. But anyone who ever said that space was easy was either delusional or selling snake oil. Or both.
An earlier discussion of political ideology and space travel.
Via Wikipedia, the image shows the SM-62 Snark (really!), a 50s vintage cruise missile.