Newt Gingrich's History in Outer Space

Newt Gingrich's recent proposal to colonize the moon is nothing new. Gingrich has been generating visionary extraterrestrial ideas at least since 1984, when he published a book called Window of Opportunity: A Blueprint for the Future.

And what a blueprint it was! Here are just two of the space-related ideas Newt trotted out in that book:

1) Nocturnal Illumination. Gingrich wrote: "A mirror system in space could provide the light equivalent of many full moons so that there would be no need for nighttime lighting of the highways." The implications of this technology for law enforcement did not escape Newt's attention: "Ambient light covering entire areas could reduce the current danger of criminals lurking in darkness."

2) Helping the Handicapped. Gingrich saw and emphasized "the possible benefits of weightlessness to people currently restricted to wheelchairs." This may sound farfetched, but Gingrich had done his homework; he reported that when he shared the idea with paraplegics they "begin asking questions in an enthusiastic tone."

I gleaned these two examples from a column for The New Republic that I wrote back in 1995, when Mickey Kaus and I were writing TNR's TRB column on alternate weeks (and when TNR was a weekly). I'm reprinting the column, below, for two reasons: (1) I actually kind of like it; (2) it shows how long Newt has been giving conservatives good reason to doubt his bonafides.

The context for the column is that Gingrich had just gotten a lot of publicity for landing a $4.5 million book contract.

TRB FROM WASHINGTON: The $4 million mind

By Robert Wright

The New Republic, p. 6, Jan. 23, 1995

We stand at a crossroads between two diverse futures. O.K., I admit it: the previous sentence isn't original to me. I was looking for an opening line with some oomph, and I lifted this one from the work of one of the most powerful writers of our time: Newt Gingrich. It is the first sentence in his book on America's future.

No, I don't mean the book that a major New York publishing house is willing to spend millions publishing and promoting; that book isn't written yet. I mean Window of Opportunity, published in 1984 by "Tom Doherty Associates"-- and promoted via a $105,000 publicity budget donated by oil interests, textile interests, real estate interests and so on. But that's another story. This week let's use Window of Opportunity as the rare opportunity it is--a chance to glimpse a $4.5 million literary talent in action.

To begin with, there is Gingrich's justly celebrated use of imagery. Consider his description of how "welfare state" liberals wrecked the space program. When he writes that "the vision of a malaise-dominated decaying Western culture smothered the dream of a permanently manned station," we feel as if we can see the malaise-dominated decay; and we watch, transfixed, as it (or, strictly speaking, the vision of it) slowly smothers a space station (or, technically, the dream of one). Of course, more than Gingrich's literary flair, it is his penetrating vision of the future that has made him such a sought-after writer. He reports, for example, that the modern economy calls for less and less physical labor, and then builds swiftly from this insight to the prediction that Americans "will increasingly ... release the day's tension by lifting weights, swimming or through contact sports." Newtradamus has spoken.

As Gingrich stresses repeatedly, the path to an "optimistic future" (one of the two diverse futures between which lies the crossroads at which we stand) passes through outer space. If the government had followed through on the 1969 moon landing, he says, then by 1984 we would have had two space stations and a colony on the moon. You might ask: What eventual benefits could justify such massive spending? Gingrich is ready for this question. "A mirror system in space could provide the light equivalent of many full moons so that there would be no need for nighttime lighting of the highways." Indeed, "ambient light covering entire areas could reduce the current danger of criminals lurking in darkness." Also, don't forget "the possible benefits of weightlessness to people currently restricted to wheelchairs." Lending credence to this scenario, Gingrich reports that, if you describe it to paraplegics, they "begin asking questions in an enthusiastic tone."

The principle underlying this last idea--dubbed "compassionate high-tech" by its discoverer, Gingrich--admits to endless application. Since his book came out, there have been breakthroughs in the field of superconductivity. Should we launch a big federal research program? I say yes, and I think Gingrich will agree once he hears my logic. Superconductivity research involves very low temperatures. So on the roof of each laboratory we could build an ice-skating rink for underclass children who would be flown in to an adjoining heliport. "But what if it rains?" Luddite McGoverniks will ask. Each rink would be covered with a geodesic dome, built by local prison inmates who would thus gain valuable job skills.

There is a serious point here somewhere. Gingrich calls himself a " conservative futurist," yet when he gets futuristic he jettisons the conservative aversion to government involvement. Conservatives are supposed to ask, for example, "Mightn't the market work better here than government spending?" But when the government spending is on technology, the only question Gingrich asks is, "Do I think this is cool?" The answer almost invariably is yes. For example, he thinks "home-based information systems using either the telephone or cable" are cool. Thus "we need dozens of government-encouraged and subsidized efforts" to build such systems, so that we'll find out which kind is best.

Actually, since he wrote this, various media and telecom companies have proved willing, without special subsidy, to build expensive, suburb-size systems, installing living-room machines for videotext, multimedia, etc. So far the results can be summarized as follows: this is an excellent way to waste money. The whole notion of choosing a particular "type" of system is losing out to the realization that, if we provide capacious wires and a few industry-wide standards, the market will answer the hardware and software questions that Gingrich would have thrown our tax dollars at.

Witness the "Minitel" example. In the early 1980s the French government decided what kind of on-line text-retrieval machines French homes would have. This did spur the creation of data services--home banking, and so on. But today these antique machines are so glacially slow that the physical infrastructure is stifling the development of new data-intensive on-line services, the kind featuring multimedia effects or even simple graphics. The United States now has gobs more computers and computer networks per capita than France, and its big networks, such as America Online, are invading French turf. Back in 1984 Gingrich said Minitel "may make France the leading information-processing society in the world by the end of the century." Better hurry. Gingrich also thinks health care technology is cool. Serious students of this subject worry that insurance insulates patients from the cost of technology, thus yielding lots of high-cost, low-benefit use and in turn steering too much of society's resources to the further development of such machinery. But Gingrich wants more. In 1984 he wanted more cat-scan machines, and he wanted the government to provide a $100 million incentive for the development of user-friendly dialysis machines--even though "there are already companies and researchers interested in this problem."

The point here isn't that Gingrich will now waste tons on technology. The current political climate will restrain this tendency. The point is that--in case you hadn't noticed--there is little careful thought underpinning his enthusiasms, nothing solid beneath his unshakable self-assurance and his intense disdain for disagreement. (Did you know that the civil rights protests of the 1960s were a seminal contributor to America's "epidemic of technological abhorrence"?) The man who would orchestrate a paradigm shift in American governance shows no inclination to clearly address this basic question: Is government help required to reach a given social goal? And, lacking such clarity, he is at least as likely to say no when the answer is yes as to say yes when the answer is no. We stand at a crossroads between two diverse futures, and--wouldn't you know it!--our compass is busted. I feel increasingly malaise-dominated.