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.