During the presidential primaries, many of us laughed at the ideas that Newt was throwing around regarding a space program under a Gingrich Administration. Colonies on the moon, large space panels to light the earth and whatnot sound like something created by a mad scientist. But did Newt not take his pills that day…or were these ideas actually part of a campaign strategy.
Over the last 10 years, a number of changes have happened to the space program. Neil DeGrasse Tyson’s book Space Chronicles: Facing The Ultimate Frontier, gives a good insight into the politics of NASA. He looks in-depth into the nature of science politics and points out what is and isn’t important to the NASA community. This is a part of politics that many outside of Brevard County do not understand whatsoever. Therefore, it gives a great look into what the average NASA voter thinks.
One thing that is discussed in this book is the retirement of the Space Shuttle fleet, as well as the future of NASA. Many of those that work in NASA currently or over the last few years were directly working in the Space Shuttle program. And, as you know, the Space Shuttle was a manned program. With the removal of the Space Shuttle, thus the removal of a manned space program for the foreseeable future, Russia and China are now the only two countries with a currently running manned space program.
Because of this, a debate was brought up in the space community. Should NASA continue to work on projects that not only are manned projects, but projects that have reachable goals in the near future. Or should NASA start moving ahead with ambitious goals and have that Kennedy “moon-landing” moment. Both President Obama’s and New Gingrich’s answer on this shows the different political thoughts on the subject of the space program.
After taking office, President Obama talked about further space exploration, including going to Mars. This was something that Bush 41 touted as well. But with a possible manned mission to Mars, the amount of time in which we would reach that goal could be great. It could be many more presidents until we launch a vehicle from the Cape headed toward to red planet. Therefore, while Obama is talking about long term projects, none of them would be obtainable during his presidency.
This means that all of the people currently working at NASA would be obsolete, since any manned mission to Mars is too far into the future. As Tyson points out, when President Kennedy made his pledge to go to the moon by the end of the 1960s, he stated that if Kennedy would have lived, he could have still been serving as President during the first Apollo 1 mission failure as well as only a few months removed from office when the Apollo 11 mission landed on the moon. Therefore, Kennedy could either take the credit or blame if the Apollo missions didn’t happen. As we now know, he would have taken the credit.
In addition to Obama’s Mars mission and long term ideas, he also mentioned that the moon wasn’t any of his concern. We had already been there and done that, so going to the moon isn’t a priority of his administration. The average Joe that is living in Topeka, Kansas who works at a local insurance company but is a strong follower of the space program might like this idea of moving toward the future. But for the person working on the Cape in NASA, they see it as they are now unemployed.
The whole idea about the “been there, done that” regarding the moon is that we can currently do missions to the moon because our technology has advanced since the early 1970s. Therefore, moon missions are something that can be implemented at NASA now, manned missions can continue to move forward and investment in NASA could stay high, both public and private, because the moon missions would be a money maker. Many in NASA see the moon missions as a job saver. They also see long-term projects, like missions to Mars, as layoffs with no guarantee to produce results.
So, let’s look at Newt Gingrich. Gingrich brought up the moon colony idea. As was just mentioned above, the ideas of moon colonies is something that can be worked on now. It can produce immediate jobs as well. Since we already understand how to go to the moon (with the Apollo missions) as well as having the capacity to live long-term in space (with MIR and the International Space Station), we have the tools to start working toward moon colonies right now.
But as was mentioned, this keeps jobs at NASA, especially those that are working there now.
So in the end, when Newt was talking about a space colony, everyone around the nation thought he was a nutcase. But in reality, it was a highly targeted message to current NASA employees, in which Newt was saying that he has a plan to keep jobs in Brevard, while Obama wants to cut your job.
Well played, Newt. Well played.