Newt Gingrich and the moon base

Posted: January 31, 2012 in Culture, Science fiction
Tags: , , ,

OK, Republican presidential candidate Newt Gingrich’s moon base proposal is the catalyst for this post. But first, I’m going to throw out one important caveat. My purpose here is NOT to judge the proposal, or Mr. Gingrich himself.

The reason I’m so adamant about that is because I work as a newspaper reporter. I cover politics for a living, including the current presidential campaign. While I do have opinions about candidates and their proposals, I make a point of never expressing them publicly.

And as you’ve probably ascertained by now, this blog is just a goofy thing I do to entertain myself. (If you really want to see some of my political analysis, feel free to check out my journalist’s Facebook page here.

So. Newt Gingrich proposes a moon base. And he’s taking a lot of flak about it from both Democrats and Republicans.

The reactions, though often more eloquently expressed, basically come down to: “A moon base? A freakin MOON base? Come on! Do we really need any more evidence that this guy is a couple burritos short of a combination plate?”
I’m not surprised at those reactions. But I do find them interesting, for what they say about where we’ve gone as a society.

See, I’m 45. I’m old enough to remember a time when the idea of an American base on the moon come the 21st century wasn’t considered wacky. In fact, it was generally regarded as pretty much inevitable.

I’m too young to remember the 1969 moon landing. But it was still very much a part of the collective consciousness when I was in kindergarten. The other kids and I would sit in open-mouthed wonder as teachers told us about our own future. How when we were grown-ups, we’d be able to take regular flights to the moon the same as people could then ride airplanes to other cities. (In this alternate future, I wonder if the poor quality of rocketship food would have become a staple for lame standup comedy routines.)

I guess it’s one more example of just how impossible it is for even the most prescient minds to predict the future. For me, a particularly amusing example of this principle can be found in the science fiction movies of decades past — featuring spaceships zipping effortlessly between star systems, equipped with clunky wall-sized computers that include reel-to-reel tape spools.

It’s interesting how the very proposal of a moon base, widely regarded as manifest destiny in my early childhood, has transitioned to “Exhibit A” that a politician doesn’t have his head screwed on right.

That’s mainly because of cost. We just don’t seem to think it’s worth the expense anymore.

Why the change?

There was plenty of practical reasoning behind the space program, of course. Potential military applications, made all the more urgent by the Cold War. Scientific research. The possibility that we might find resources that would be of use to us down here on Earth. And let’s not underestimate the pure, adrenaline-pumping awesomeness of being able to say “We put a man on the moon, baby!”

Still, I assume that a lot of the public enthusiasm for space exploration from previous decades stemmed from a widespread misunderstanding of just what was out there.

I’ve already mentioned science fiction, which (get ready for a big revelation here) is different from science fact. But I truly believe that a science fiction-informed mindset inspired a lot of the early national enthusiasm for space exploration — among the general public, if not among the scientists involved in the space program.

It still amazes me when I read science fiction from the 1960s, featuring unsuited and unhelmeted space explorers having adventures on the earthlike surfaces of Jupiter or Mercury. Hell, the 1960s weren’t THAT long ago! Didn’t people know any better by then?

Similarly, the surrounding cosmos was going to be an exciting, romantic place. It would be chock-full of earthlike planets featuring exotic creatures, dazzling landscapes and hot space babes in silvery bikinis and beehive hairdos.

In truth, outer space turned out to be a lot lonelier than that. There are no earth-like planets within reach. We”ll just have to live without those beehive-hairdooed space babes.

In some ways, I see those dreamy visions of a space-faring civilization as hearkening more to the past than the future. The very arrival of the space age, with the advent of satellites, brought a final end to an activity that had been part of the human experience for millenia — speculating about the mysterious lands beyond the explored edges of the map.

Even in the 1930s and 40s, it seemed entirely plausible that there might be some vast civilization as yet undiscovered out there. A Lost City of Z waiting in the dark reaches of the South American jungle for some intrepid explorer to cross that one final rise and find it. It’s an exciting concept that’s denied us these days. For a while, I think people tried to project that fantasy on a cosmos that ultimately couldn’t accommodate it.

Don’t get me wrong. I don’t think we’ve seen the end of space exploration. Yeah, it’s a hard sell these days when it comes to the expenditure of public funds (unless you happen to be making a campaign speech in Florida) but I suspect we’ll see the private sector getting more and more involved. And who knows? We might even get that moon base one of these days. I already mentioned how the future has a way of defying the predictions of even the smartest people. (I’d be the first to admit I’m not one of the smartest people.)

For now, though, I’m willing to put the moon base — along with the personalized jetpack and the robot butler — on my list of neato future stuff that I daydreamed about as a kid, but that I don’t expect to get anytime soon.

  1. Tim Barzyk says:

    I’m all about having a condo on the moon, but I don’t think now is the time either. I don’t think it comes down to the question of “Why?” so much as “When?” and the when is not now. It did make me wonder, though, what it would take to get it done, and so I put together a synopsis of the main challenges. Thanks for the post, Tom. You’re right — it’s an exciting idea, but something for the future, and not the next 8 years.

    A Moon Colony by 2020: Can it be done?

  2. I left a comment on your entry. Anyone else who sees this, I strongly recommend Tim’s piece. He makes the point that all this discussion might be taking place in a dwindling window of opportunity.

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