Is Newt's Moon Colony Fantasy or Science Fiction?

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Newt Gingrich has long prided himself as an 'idea' candidate, someone whose grand visions differentiate him from the rest of the pack. Perhaps the grandest of those visions has emerged in Florida's 'Space Coast' this week, during the countdown to the Florida primary.

"By the end of my second term, we will have the first permanent base on the moon and it will be American," Gingrich told Floridians. When 13,000 Americans are "living on the moon, they can petition to become a state," he added.

Florida's economy has been hit hard  by cuts to the space program, with thousands of jobs lost and tens of thousands more impacted in tourism and other industries. Is Gingrich simply trying to appeal to voters who feel threatened by cuts to the space budget and NASA or is his vision a real possibility?

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A 1988 painting of what two astronauts hanging out at a lunar station might look like. NASA.

No matter its feasibility, this is not merely a wild fantasy as far as Gingrich is concerned. It's not even a new idea. In 1984 Gingrich published Window of Opportunity: A Blueprint for the Future. The book is full of futuristic ideas. Nearly three decades ago Gingrich was touting space colonization. And although he's never backed down from the idea, he has cooled on NASA.

Fast-forward to 2012 where the new Newt Gingrich thinks NASA should spend 10% of its budget on prize money for competitions between private companies, spurring a sort of private-enterprise space race. These private space entrepreneurs are our best hope for moon colonization, Gingrich argues, not big expensive NASA projects.

"I think you've got to look at some of these science projects," he told Discovery News. "The fact that the Webb telescope has gone from $1.5 billion to $9 billion -- and I'm told that people don't believe that at $9 billion it's going to be on budget -- at some point you have to stop and say, 'There's something systemically wrong when you get into this scale of an overrun. I think that deserves serious review.'"

Private companies have made serious strides toward space exploration in recent years. The $10 million dollar Ansari X Prize was won in 2004 by SpaceShipOne, a private shuttle designed by the Tier One project, the brainchild of Burt Rutan and Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen.

Virgin Galactic, a subsidiary of billionaire Richard Branson's Virgin Group, is already  signing up passengers for a future launch of SpaceShipTwo.

Meanwhile PayPal entrepreneur Elon Musk's SpaceX company  is close to launching its Dragon spacecraft  which it is hoping to dock onto the International Space Station, marking "the first successful docking of a private spacecraft with the International Space Station - a huge leap forward for the future of commerical spaceflight." These and other space exploration companies work closely with NASA and will continue to do so.

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A drawing of a lunar colony from a 1974 paper on lunar colonies. NASA.

In a passage with echoes of today's space-age conversation, Timothy Leary wrote in his 1977 The Sociobiology of Human Metamorphosis that "despite the campaign rhetoric, the bureaucracies-big business and big government-are here to stay. The centralization effort cannot be checked, but it can be rationally directed towards our species goal: Space Migration."

The words may as well be straight out of Gingrich's mouth. Certainly his proposed prize money isn't a bad idea given the way that the private and public investment has played out in the past, though it might make more sense to simply add to the already strained space budget rather than cut 10% from it.

But will private companies, or NASA for that matter, be able to colonize the moon by 2020?

"When we are not expecting a U.S. crewed launch to the ISS until 2016-2017 and are just getting started on a lunar-class launch vehicle, establishing a lunar outpost by 2020 is a fantasy," space policy expert John Logsdon, professor emeritus at George Washington University, told SPACE.com. "It would be much better to set realistic goals, but that is not Mr. Gingrich's strong suit."

Gingrich is more interested in bold visions than realistic goals. "The reason you have to have a bold and large vision is you don't arouse the American nation with trivial, bureaucratic, rational objectives," he said at a round-table in Florida.

Some space enthusiasts agree. "It's definitely possible. I mean, we got to the moon with no program at all in nine years. Can we do it? Clearly we can. The challenge is, can we convince the Congress that this is where scarce resources need to be," Dale Ketcham, director of the Spaceport Research and Technology Institute at the University of Central Florida, said.

Science fiction author Ray Bradbury will be happy with the former speaker's space plans. President Obama "should be announcing that we should go back to the moon," he said in 2010, angry at the current administration's lack of interest in space exploration. "We should go to the moon and prepare a base to fire a rocket off to Mars and then go to Mars and colonize Mars. Then when we do that, we will live forever."

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Apollo 13 astronauts practice for a moonwalk they never got to take. NASA.

For Bradbury and other space enthusiasts like him in Florida's Space Coast and elsewhere, Gingrich's plan is more than just a grand vision - it's a belief in the future of mankind. Whether it's feasible is less certain.

The last space race was undertaken in a much less polarized political climate and its stakes seemed nearly as high as the Cold War itself. But the future, it turns out, is defined less by jetpacks and space shuttles and more by iPhones and Facebook.

While investment in space technology can pay off in other ways, including acting as a form of stimulus, it's also a pretty big gamble. Likewise, America's more pressing problems are numerous: an economic downturn worse than any since the Great Depression; global strife in Asia and the Middle East; unemployment stubbornly rooted near double digits; a political system that can barely appoint judges let alone commission space colonies.

Someday we may indeed inhabit the stars. Resource scarcity has convinced many space enthusiasts of the necessity of that vision, not just its romanticism. As Bradbury once said, "What's the use of looking at Mars through a telescope, sitting on panels, writing books, if it isn't to guarantee, not just the survival of mankind, but mankind surviving forever!"

Or as H.G. Wells wrote long before the former Speaker of the House was even a passenger on Space Ship Earth, "Life, forever dying to be born afresh, for ever young and eager, will presently stand upon this earth as upon a footstool, and stretch out its realm amidst the stars."

Perhaps Gingrich's vision is too lofty by half, the grandiose vision of a man more interested with his own big ideas than with the hard work of the mundane. But is it really such a terrible thing to think big? Of his many faults, this is Gingrich's least.

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A 1977 painting of a lunar supply base. NASA.

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E.D. Kain is a blogger and freelance writer. He is the editor of The League of Ordinary Gentlemen, where he writes about political philosophy and culture. He writes about nerd culture and technology at Forbes and writes about politics at his personal blog, American Times.

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