Fly Me to the Moon

The Republican establishment would probably prefer that Newt Gingrich spend less time talking about lunar mining and space hotels. But the former House speaker may be the only true free-marketer in outer space. 

Before the sun had even come up on Jan. 1, 2000, the new millennium had already disappointed Newt Gingrich. As the former House speaker had envisioned it, that New Year's Day was supposed to be marked with the most extraordinary ribbon-cutting in human history: the grand opening of a research base on the moon, jointly operated by all the free nations of the world.

At first, it would be a rough, provisional thing: Crews of four to six people would shunt to and from the outpost on three- or six-month shifts, much like research scientists in Antarctica. Their hours would be mostly preparing for a more permanent lunar presence by standing up the moon base's "self-replicating systems," manufacturing oxygen and water from the lunar soil and tending to its imported greenhouse-style biosphere. It would be a hardscrabble frontier life, but if all went according to plan, a decade later, the base would have blossomed into a full-blown colony, home to as many as 300 people. By midcentury, it would have a population the size of a respectable Midwestern dairy town, its residents busy tending to bustling robot-assisted manufacturing and agricultural industries.

This, at any rate, was the scenario that Gingrich sketched out in the first and most intriguing volume on the ever-metastasizing Gingrich bookshelf, 1984's now out-of-print Window of Opportunity: A Blueprint for the Future. It was a dream he revisited on Jan. 25 in a campaign speech in Cocoa, Florida, in which he reiterated his intentions to build a moon base. (This being a Newt Gingrich speech, he managed to compare himself to Abraham Lincoln, John F. Kennedy, and the Wright Brothers, too).

Gingrich's grand space visions have always served as a sort of shorthand for his appetite for big ideas, the very bigness of which is the point. ("You hear Gingrich's staff has these five file cabinets, four big ones and this little tiny one," Sen. Bob Dole, the Republican Senate majority leader during Gingrich's tenure as House speaker, told a reporter in 1995. "No. 1 is ‘Newt's ideas.' No. 2, ‘Newt's ideas.' No. 3, No. 4, ‘Newt's ideas.' The little one is ‘Newt's Good Ideas.'") Every time the former speaker blips back into range on the radar screen of American politics, we hear again about the loopiest of these space plans -- the Earth-orbiting array of mirrors reflecting light back upon the Earth, the zero-gravity honeymoons, the lunar greenhouses.

The weirdest thing about Gingrich's space visions, though, is that they suddenly matter. Gingrich has unexpectedly found himself in a nearly dead heat with Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney leading up to Jan. 31's Republican primary in Florida, an economically battered state whose Space Coast -- the communities surrounding Cape Canaveral -- is so dependent on NASA and its contractors for jobs that the region not long ago changed its area code to the countdown-invoking "321". For once, Gingrich's mania for throwing out big ideas actually comes with some real political stakes.

And those ideas, in recent years, have shifted firmly away from the politically well-tested ground Gingrich occupied in 1984, when he was bullish enough on NASA to put an illustration of a bald eagle embracing the space shuttle on the cover of Window of Opportunity. Today, Gingrich is a harsh critic of NASA; though he still talks about the moon-mining projects and Mars exploration missions, he now talks mostly about private companies, not NASA, doing the mining and the exploring.

These are the views that most politicians would keep to themselves while stumping for votes around Cape Canaveral -- and yet Gingrich, being Gingrich, seems unable to resist. When a question about NASA funding came up in the primary debate in Tampa on Monday, Jan. 23, Gov. Mitt Romney gave the safe answer. "It should certainly be a priority," he told the moderator. "What we have right now is a president who does not have a vision or a mission for NASA. And as a result of that, there are people on the Space Coast that are suffering. And Florida itself is suffering as a result." Gingrich, by contrast, declared, "I would like to see vastly more of the money spent encouraging the private sector into very aggressive experimentation. And I'd like a leaner NASA. I don't think building a bigger bureaucracy and having a greater number of people sit in rooms and talk gets you there." This is sort of like telling a crowd at the Iowa State Fair that corn is a mediocre vegetable.

But there is actually more at stake here than just the votes of Floridians. Since Apollo, the space program has posed a particularly diabolical dilemma for conservatives; it is the most sentimental and unimpeachable of patriotic quests, overseen by a government bureaucracy with an endless appetite for taxpayer money. For decades, Republican politicians have taken one look at the stakes -- all those voters in NASA-centric states like Florida and Texas, the specter of a Chinese flag joining the American one on the moon -- and have swallowed the contradiction without much comment. Not so with Newt. Virtually alone among his partisans, Gingrich has adopted something actually resembling a free-market conservative view of outer space -- and he seems inclined to suffer whatever consequences it may bring.


Although the space race began under the Republican Dwight Eisenhower, the American side of the competition was really a liberal Democratic project. John F. Kennedy campaigned on the need for a more ambitious NASA in 1960 and, after news of Yuri Gagarin's flight spread beyond the Iron Curtain, launched the Apollo program -- a venture that space program historians have argued probably wouldn't have been seen through to the moon landing but for Kennedy's assassination, which recast Apollo as a tribute to the fallen president.

Eisenhower and moderate Republicans of his ilk tended to look askance upon the whole idea. The aims seemed ill-defined and only tangentially related to national security; the whole concept of a mammoth government-driven space program smacked of technocracy or, worse, of Soviet-style central planning wrapped up in the guise of American greatness. In his Pulitzer Prize-winning The Heavens and the Earth: A Political History of the Space Age, the conservative historian Walter A. McDougall argues that if it were not for Apollo, Lyndon B. Johnson's Great Society might never have happened: "Under the impact of total Cold War," he writes, "with the space program serving as lever, Left and Right, dove and hawk succumbed to the technocratic temptation."

McDougall may have been a bit hyperbolic, but he was right about NASA itself. By the 1980s, few politicians of either party questioned the centrality of the space program to the United States' self-image, even as NASA's own manned spaceflights -- by then limited to the shuttle program -- had become oddly pedestrian.

The vision that Gingrich espoused in Window of Opportunity was more or less the conventional view of the time blown out to absurdly Newt-onian proportions. The book advocates a sort of galactic industrial policy, a bustling zero-gravity economy built on a solid base of government spending. "The power structure in Washington decided to subsidize the jobs of the past rather than invest in the jobs and knowledge of the future," he writes. "That decision will cripple our nation for another generation if we let it continue, allowing the Europeans, Japanese, and Soviets to surpass us despite our initial lead."

The closest an idea of this magnitude ever came to fruition in the post-Apollo years was the second term of George W. Bush's presidency, when Bush appointed an aerospace engineer named Michael Griffin as his NASA director. The agency Griffin took charge of in 2005 was in the middle of an existential crisis brought on by the explosion of the space shuttle Columbia in 2003, which forced a reckoning about whether the shuttle program, with its routine sorties to the International Space Station, was really worth the money and risk it was incurring. Instead, Bush vowed that NASA would once again seek the frontier, returning to the moon and forging onwards to Mars.

Griffin's plan to restore the U.S. spaceflight program to its Apollo glory days was a project called Constellation, which would consist of a suite of rockets, capsules, and landing modules that would be dispatched first to the moon, where a lunar base would be constructed, then eventually onwards to Mars by mid-century, establishing a long-term American presence in space.  

It was an extraordinary goal, but Bush balked at funding it commensurately with its ambitions; he ordered Griffin to accomplish his aims within the parameters of NASA's existing budget. This became a problem once Constellation started running into technical difficulties and delays, and found itself with a budget insufficient to sustain them. By the end of the Bush presidency, NASA was staring at a gloomy future: the shuttle program was scheduled to close down in a couple years, and there was no manned spaceflight project waiting in the wings to take its place.

As Griffin's NASA vision foundered, Gingrich appeared in the pages of Aviation Week to take stock of the agency's problems -- but rather than make a case for saving it, he urged policymakers to bury the program's old model. "We must rethink the very concept of NASA if we want to save it from certain obsolescence," Gingrich wrote. "Government funding of NASA has been absurdly cost-ineffective. Over the past 10 years, we've spent $156 billion on NASA alone, with embarrassingly little to show for it."

In order "to maximize American presence in space and create the highest tempo of progress possible," Gingrich went on, money needed to be drawn away from the classic sort of NASA programs and plowed directly into advancing the cause of commercial spaceflight, enabling a new entrepreneurial society to flourish in orbit.

Sharing this view with Gingrich was a man who shared very few other things with him: Barack Obama. In February 2010, Obama announced he was scrapping most of what was left of NASA's Bush-era Constellation program, and instead contracting out NASA's spaceflight requirements -- basically ferrying astronauts and cargo to the International Space Station -- to a handful of commercial space companies, with Russian rockets filling the gap in the near term. NASA, meanwhile, would refocus its energies on long-range research and development that would enable the path breaking missions of the future. Republican politicians and conservative commentators cried foul and blasted the president for abandoning the cause of American greatness. The decision was "a constricted inward-looking call to retreat," Washington Post columnist Charles Krauthammer wrote.

Guess who came to the president's defense? "Despite the shrieks you might have heard from a few special interests, the Obama administration's budget for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration deserves strong approval from Republicans," Gingrich wrote in a February 2010 Washington Times op-ed, coauthored with his fellow former congressman Robert Walker. Since entering the 2012 fray, Gingrich's views on the subject have if anything become more outspoken. In a Republican debate last June in New Hampshire, Gingrich declared that NASA was "standing in the way" of space exploration, and "ought to be getting out of the way and encouraging the private sector."


This kind of semi-privatized space program comes with a raft of questions. The commercial space companies that such a scheme would entrust with the lives of astronauts -- and eventually civilians -- remain untested in human spaceflight; it's not yet clear how they could operate at NASA's required safety levels on the dramatically smaller budgets some of them have proposed. (Gingrich has suggested that we might need to "be more realistic" about the risk of space exploration than we do today, but it's hard to envision that line playing well in the event of a major spaceflight catastrophe.)

The economics of the idea, too, seem dicey; if Gingrich's grand vision of an interplanetary economy doesn't come to pass soon -- and it does seem, ahem, rather far off -- then NASA could find itself burdened by whatever costs are necessary to keep its commercial providers in business. Gingrich's most beloved dreams -- the moon base, zero-gravity manufacturing, and the like -- are not the kind of thing that any halfway serious commercial spaceflight company is particularly interested in at the moment; the industry's potential profits lie mostly in the less glamorous work of carrying cargo, satellites, and possibly a millionaire space tourist or two.

But the kind of plan that Obama and Gingrich have both espoused, for all its faults, is the sort of space program a conservative should be able to love, one that at least attempts to resolve the contradictions that Walter McDougall once fretted about. And the fact that few Republicans support anything like it, instead clinging to Romney-like bromides, says a great deal about a party that is rarely willing to wrestle with its own ideological contradictions.

There's the question, of course, of whether manned space exploration is really worth it at all -- whether the government's money wouldn't be better spent on projects yielding more tangible value, particularly in a time of deficits and austerity. But few politicians have ever had the stomach to ask that question -- and in the meantime, Gingrich, space mirrors and all, is planting his flag on the final Republican frontier.

Joe Raedle/Getty Images


Supremely Irrelevant

Iran tried to take advantage of the Arab Spring. It failed, miserably.

One year ago today, Egyptians took to the streets to demand the removal of Hosni Mubarak's three-decade-old dictatorship. As they waved flags and chanted for the fall of the regime, another ruler 1,200 miles to the east was calculating how to use their act of courage for his own profit. On Feb. 4, at the height of the protests in Tahrir Square, Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei took the stage in Tehran to deliver his assessment of the revolutionary moment unfolding in Cairo.

Speaking partly in Arabic, Khamenei described events in Egypt as an "Islamic awakening" inspired by Iran's own 1979 revolution. The speech was blasted out to thousands of Egyptians via text message, and Khamenei even claimed on his webpage to have personally inspired the pro-democracy demonstrations, comparing them to "the yell that the Iranian nation let out against America and against global arrogance and tyranny."

Khamenei was not alone in predicting that the Arab Spring would provide Iran an opportunity to expand its influence across the Middle East. Early on, some Washington commentators fretted that he may be right. Writing in Foreign Affairs, for example, Michael Scott Doran, a former official in President George W. Bush's administration, cautioned that the "resistance bloc" led by Tehran was "poised to pounce, jackal-like, on the wounded states of the region." And, in Israel, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told the Knesset as recently as October that he doubted the "high hopes that blossomed in the Arab Spring" would be realized, arguing that Iran would manipulate events to expand its influence.

But even at the time, Khamenei's assertions fell on deaf ears among the hundreds of thousands risking their lives in Tahrir Square. When asked about Khamenei's boastful claims, one Tahrir protester mocked: "Egyptians were not inspired by Iran. Rather, the Egyptian people are inspiring the world." This proved a much more astute observation than the supreme leader's. As Foreign Policy's own Marc Lynch documents in his compelling new book, The Arab Uprising, the 2011 revolts in Egypt and elsewhere were inspired by decades-old grievances against corrupt regimes and the mutually reinforcing demonstration effects of simultaneous movements rising up across the Arab world. Iran had nothing to do with it.

The reaction in Tahrir Square represented a sign of things to come. Iran has tried to exploit events, but the winds of political change have not blown in Tehran's favor.

When Mubarak fell, Iran's leaders moved out with swagger. They saw one pivotal U.S. ally gone, and perceived an opportunity to exploit unrest to undermine other pro-Western regimes, especially Saudi Arabia. They sought to develop contacts with Islamists in Egypt and Libya, expand ties to opposition movements in Yemen, and capitalize on the indigenous Shiite protests in Bahrain. And Iran's leaders seemed confident that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's regime, Tehran's state ally in the Middle East, was immune from the populist wave because of its militant stance toward Israel and the United States.

One year later, however, it is hard to find evidence that Iran has benefited from the Arab uprisings. In fact, Iran's regional position has taken a big hit. With the partial exception of Yemen, Tehran has struggled to build new networks of influence with emerging Islamist actors. Meanwhile, Assad's regime has been thoroughly delegitimized, expelled from the Arab League, and is wobbling in the face of nationwide protests. This, in turn, has created considerable anxiety for Hezbollah, the Lebanese militia that constitutes Iran's chief non-state ally.

The perception of Iranian meddling has also decimated Tehran's "soft power" appeal across the Arab world. Surveys conducted in Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, Morocco, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates by Zogby International show Iran's reputation in free fall since the Arab Spring began. Just a few years ago, Iran enjoyed a strong majority of support among the populations of all these countries; as of July 2011, Iran had a net unfavorable rating in every country but Lebanon.

This is not just a temporary setback for Iran, but a sea change that could deeply undermine its regional ambitions. To be sure, the trajectory of the Arab Spring remains uncertain, and rising sectarian tensions and political backsliding in some countries may provide opportunities for Tehran to cause mischief. But several underlying dynamics suggest that Iran's struggles will continue.

As Arab publics increasingly look to their own governments to represent their interests, Iran's ability to leverage regional discontent to influence the Arab street will continue to wane. Moreover, emerging political actors vying for influence and votes in an increasingly populist landscape, including both secular parties and Sunni Arab Islamist groups such as the Muslim Brotherhood, will be keen to brandish their Arab nationalist credentials and will be reluctant to forge close associations with Tehran. Within hours of Mubarak's fall, for example, the Muslim Brotherhood's spokesman was already taking pains to emphasize that "Egypt is not Iran. Egypt can build its own model of democracy according to its culture and Islamic preference."

The Iranian regime's brutal response to its own 2009 protest movement puts further limits on its influence over the Arab Spring. The regime's refusal to respect universal rights, while claiming to back democratic movements across the Middle East, is irrefutable evidence of hypocrisy. And Iran's continued support for the Syrian regime's bloody tactics -- at the very moment that Assad faces growing pressure from fellow Arab states and Turkey to end the violence and step aside -- only magnifies this double standard.

Classic balance of power dynamics have also triggered extensive pushback from Tehran's regional rivals. Iran's nuclear ambitions, combined with widespread concerns of Iranian-backed subversion, have motivated unprecedented arms purchases and security cooperation among the Arab Gulf states. Exaggerated perceptions of Iranian meddling also produced the ill-advised Saudi intervention into Bahrain last March. In the face of perceived Iranian threats, Saudi Arabia and its allies are likely to continue to circle the wagons.

Lastly, as the prospects of Assad's political survival in Syria continue to dim, so do Iran's hopes for regional supremacy. For years, Iran's close alliance with Syria has provided it with a platform to exert influence in the Arab world, and a base from which to funnel support to militant Lebanese and Palestinian organizations threatening Israel. But with the pro-democracy movement in Syria persisting in the face of severe repression and Assad's regime facing international estrangement, Iran's most critical alliance is increasingly tenuous.

If Assad falls, Iran may attempt to compensate by doubling down in Iraq. But the susceptibility of Iraq's Shiite-led government to Iranian hegemony is widely exaggerated and Iraq cannot replace Syria as a gateway to the Levant. Iraqi nationalism is profound and local distrust of Iran, a country Iraq waged the bloodiest war of the late twentieth century against, runs deep. Iraq also desires a long-term partnership with the United States and improved relations with its Arab neighbors -- goals that are incompatible with Iranian domination.

One year after the Egyptian revolution began, Khamenei's hopes -- and Western analysts' fears -- have not materialized, and are not likely to. Although it has been fashionable to describe Iran's growing power in the Middle East, actual events suggest the opposite. Iran's economy is reeling under sanctions, and the regime's nuclear activities and saber-rattling increasingly mark it as a pariah state. And as the Arab Spring marches on, Iran will find itself falling further behind.