Newt's long shot at the Moon


Gingrich: "By the end of 2020, we will have the first continuous propulsion system in space capable of getting to Mars in a remarkably short time"

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Newt Gingrich's promise to build a base on the Moon by 2020 if he becomes president shows the best and worst of the man.

It is grandiose, ill thought-out and obvious electioneering, but it's also thinking outside the narrow box.

For the political box has become very small indeed.

The parties are very far apart, but they are photographic negatives of each other, arguing about the great issue of the 20th Century: taxation and the size of the state.

Newt, in this instance, is thinking about the challenges of this century and those beyond it. It is true he was speaking in a state with a heavy investment in the space race, but the final frontier has been a long-standing obsession for him.

More than sci-fi

America's Moon shots were the symbol of its boundless quest for the future, but now politicians who talk about space risk mockery.

What was once a sign of modernity and progress is now often seen as plain foolish and geeky. That was the fate of British Liberal Democrat Lembit Opik, who was widely mocked for his talk about protecting the Earth from asteroids.

Because people had seen silly films about an asteroid strike, they seem to bracket the threat alongside giant marshmallow men.

Perhaps it is the fault of bookstores for pulling Fantasy and Sci-Fi into one category: I like both, but elves and magic swords don't exist, while the solar system and the stars do.

As every lover of speculative fiction knows, if the human race is to flourish, then one day it will have to take to the stars.

But the trouble is the same as the asteroid strike. We are talking about something that could be hundreds of years away, if not thousands, when most politicians and voters can't think more than four years ahead.

Small government, big space?

But if Newt's forward thinking is in some ways admirable, it is odd territory at the end of an economic crisis, for a politician whose main theme is cutting government spending and decreasing the power of the state.

International Space Station is seen as a small object in the upper left of this image of the moon from Houston, Texas, 4 January 2012 The Moon was once a powerful symbol for the US and a future goal for the Chinese

It is true he has always been interested in encouraging private space exploration and thinks 10% of Nasa's budget should be given out in prize money for the best ideas.

But getting to the Moon and maintaining a base would be immensely costly. One 2009 estimate worked out it would cost $35bn (£22bn) to set up a base and around $7.5bn a year to maintain it. It is hard to see that happening without massive government support.

One scientist told the BBC that it could cost 5% of the federal budget, as Apollo did.

Sell that to the Tea Party.

China's space race

The idea of a Moon base is controversial, even among those who urge space exploration.

It would be hugely expensive and would halt other, perhaps more exciting, unmanned projects further out in the solar system. It would only conceivably pay its way as a source of Helium 3. But that depends on scientists making a breakthrough in nuclear fusion.

But here's what is probably going to happen, if not under President Newt: sometime this century, the Chinese will put a man (or woman) on the Moon.

And that's just for starters. The country has recently declared Mars within their ambitions.

For the Chinese, the space race makes a point about their place in the world, It helps grow new industries, fits their ideology of human progress and gives them a military edge.

The Americans landed on the Moon precisely because they were given a jolt by the Soviet Union's Sputnik programme. The rival superpower had done something they couldn't yet do.

Imagine if the rising power does something America did long ago, but can no longer do. That too would be a powerful symbol. Then a president might have to dig out Newt's blueprints - or accept second place in the world.

Mark Mardell Article written by Mark Mardell Mark Mardell Presenter, The World This Weekend

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  • rate this

    Comment number 133.

    "Ultimately if we are to survive we need to move heavy industry off earth"."

    Especially since it's doubtful whether sustainable, economically viable nuclear fusion can be achieved on Earth.

    [too bad not many people understand what mining and using Helium-3 on the Moon could mean for our species]

  • rate this

    Comment number 132.

    While this is nothing more than electoral posturing designed to get column inches I think that a quest for a moon base would be an entirely good thing.

    If the govt is going to spend billions on job creation then why not do it on an inspirational project such as this? The benefits in the long term are massive.

    Ultimately if we are to survive we need to move heavy industry off earth.

  • rate this

    Comment number 131.

    "Only lunatics take potshots at the Moon.Be down- to -earth and try to solve the many problems and violence on this planet."

    Starting with reducing Earth population by half.

    Non-renewable resources incl. water are just that: NON-RENEWABLE.

  • rate this

    Comment number 130.

    Gingrich's promise is so laughable, so dumb so obviously never-going-to-happen, that I suspect he probably means it. Its the America of his youth that he wants to wish back into existence.

  • rate this

    Comment number 129.

    Mark (127),

    "... There are plenty of stars out there. Why should we be limited to one?"

    No reason at all, if only we have the willl to try!

  • rate this

    Comment number 128.

    Only lunatics take potshots at the Moon.Be down- to -earth and try to solve the many problems and violence on this planet.

  • rate this

    Comment number 127.

    "This whole mentality of using up a place and then moving on is immoral"

    Who said to use up the Earth and move on? We can stay here and spread. There are plenty of stars out there. Why should we be limited to one?

  • rate this

    Comment number 126.

    The idea that the US should spend huge amounts of money on such a speculative project while still in the Bush recession is sheer lunacy. It makes more sense to promote energy alternatives and cost cutting measures at home. Sure promote speculation and invention, but to implement Luna colonization now is a lunatic's errand.

  • rate this

    Comment number 125.

    Re jedcline(120)
    Watch this from me:
    When existing investments in petrochemical energy sources let go of control enough, then this space transportation concept will get a close look and will enable opening up space in a big way, providing Solar Power Stations and low cost lunar infrastructure easily.

    But for now it would be too disruptive to business to happen.

  • rate this

    Comment number 124.

    Moderator. why moderate a moderate comment???

  • rate this

    Comment number 123.

    From a documentary I saw about NASA, they cannot "Do" the moon yet, but are studying the financial ramifications of the moonbase.
    For one thing, that launchers that put the man on the moon will not be available, and research into replacement will take time, as will the research on how to allow man to survive on the moon surface for an extended period!

  • rate this

    Comment number 122.

    4 Hours ago
    TheSpirit (117),

    "... Ron Paul 2012 ..."

    Good Luck!

    I'm willing to bet that Ron Paul will try again in 2016 if he's still alive.

  • rate this

    Comment number 121.

    Re #112 China will plant its flag there before the US does again."

    Sorry but US has done it over 40 years ago.

    "Right now the US needs Russian rockets to get its astronauts into space."

    So, does China. Unfortunately it's lost its first Mars satellite when Russian Phobe Grunt probe failed and splashed into Pacific ca 1000 km west of Chilean Patagonia.

    Sorry about that.

  • rate this

    Comment number 120.

    If the "KESTSGEO" (a hoop shaped structure supported by internally generated centrifugal force, ground to GEO) project had been started 22 years ago when first publicly proposed, we would have low cost electrical transportation to GEO by now, enabling Solar Power Stations already, and providing Spaceports in GEO, 91% up out of Earth's gravitational energy field, from where the Moon would be easy.

  • rate this

    Comment number 119.

    His constituency doesn't like paying taxes for anything, not even schools let alone NASA. They also dislike all government and everything it does. Many of his people don't value science and see no point to govt. funding such a mission. How is he going to pay for this w/o alienating his base?

  • rate this

    Comment number 118.

    TheSpirit (117),

    "... Ron Paul 2012 ..."

    Good Luck!

  • rate this

    Comment number 117.

    Watch this from me.

    Newt is a dangerous Neocon.
    Dr. Paul will
    End the Wars, End the Fed, and
    Restore Individual Liberty.
    Dr Paul is the Champion of the Constitution.

    The Spirit of the Revolution is with the Ron Paul Campaign.
    America is waking up.
    Freedom Brings people Together.
    Ron Paul 2012
    Don't believe the media,
    Liberty is making a comeback!!!

  • rate this

    Comment number 116.

    "One scientist told the BBC that it could cost 5% of the federal budget, as Apollo did." means nothing. which scientist, a guy in a bar? Also, when total costs for a base are quoted they normally fail to mention that this is a lifetime cost. NASA's human spaceflight budget is about $10B a year. So if this is a ten year effort, and the cost s $100B then it actually FITS in the current budget.

  • rate this

    Comment number 115.

    It's unfortunate that America, to a certain extent, gave-up on space after Apollo. The shuttle, ISS, Hubble and other missions are fabulous endeavours but it's sad to hear men who walked on the Moon say that, if a president were to issue the challenge that Kennedy issued in the early 60s today, it would never get off the ground. It'll take the Chinese to re-awaken America's ambition in space.

  • rate this

    Comment number 114.

    Kingsbayfisherman (113),

    "... This is how America got into the present problems, Politicians offering to spend in exchange for votes.
    Time to get real and balance budgets !!"

    Very True!


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