27 Jan 2012

Last night on the CNN Florida debate, Newt Gingrich stated: "We want Americans to think boldly about the future," he also outlined a space policy initiative that would cut Nasa's bureaucracy and expand on private space programs.  "By the end of my second term, we will have the first permanent base on the moon," Gingrich also stated.  He mentioned the idea of there being 10,000 colonists and a granting of the 51st state to the colony.  We should note that this statement could conflict with Extraterrestrial real estate agreements that are in the works or that have been established at least military wise.  He goes on to state "We will have commercial near-Earth activities that include science, tourism and manufacturing, because it is in our interest to acquire so much experience in space that we clearly have a capacity that the Chinese and the Russians will never come anywhere close to matching."

Newt's suggestion is not really that shocking considering he has had many other ideas in the past such as a plan to build a space mirror system that would provide light of many moons to illuminate highways on Earth.  This is definitely thinking outside the box, something which seems to be rare these days in America.

Sure to most Americans space travel and space exploration may not be on their minds right now, given the state of the US economy and issues here on our own world, but such a vision, such a goal could propel America back to the top both in exploration and ambition, similar to the 1960s.  So you ask, what drive do we have in today's world?  The United States and other parts of the world in fact, in more recent times have lacked that inspiration or purpose.  Such a lacking of purpose leads to a decline in innovative ideas.  Where have the exciting and often inspiring forward thinking space explorations gone?  First some background.

Early NASA/Space Motivations

In the 1960's the primary focus on going to the moon was because we were competing with the Russians during the Cold-war era.  In 1961 John F. Kennedy set the tone to return to the moon by the end of the decade, which we did by July of 1969.  In the early 1980s, President Reagan even set forth the idea to have NASA develop a permanently manned space station within 10 years.  Of course, ultimately this ended up taking longer than 10 years in the end.

The Constellation Program

In 2004, President Bush stated he wanted a manned presence on the moon by 2020 which would happen through the Constellation program.  The Constellation program consisted of Ares rockets and an Orion crew capsule, designed to return man to the moon.  It was to be a successor to the space shuttle, which began to be developed in concept, after the 2003 Columbia accident.  Back in 2010, however, it was estimated that the Ares rocket would not be ready for manned missions before 2017 and a moon mission before the mid 2020s at best.  It was behind schedule already.

NASA Budget Cuts and Privatization of Space

More recently, NASA had its budget slashed by the Obama administration, forcing it to rethink and retool its space exploration ideas.  Obama's budget cuts put a stop to the Constellation plan, reducing the 100 billion dollars that would have been spent by 2020, to 6 billion dollars over five years.   Hence the budget cuts forced NASA to rely on the Russians for getting to the space station after the recent shuttle retirement and the transition to private space assistance. 

The only good part of this budget cut was that of private space companies becoming more innovative and directly involved in space exploration, something long over due.  The downside being that its almost like starting over for many of the companies, because NASA has had 50 years of experience and advancements in space travel, which most of the companies do not.   Long term though, private space travel is the key to propelling space exploration forward, it will lead to many new advances and opportunities as more entrepreneurs come on board.  SpaceX and other firms are currently helping to get us in this direction.  SpaceX was the first privately funded company to successfully launch, orbit and recover a spacecraft.  They are working towards developing a human flown transporter to replace the shuttle as the way to get to the International Space Station (ISS).  SpaceX is aiming to test a cargo flight to ISS later this year.

Lack of Ambitious Thinking and the Impact of the Space Program

The more recent vision of NASA after these changes was to get a new rocket outside of Earth orbit with a rocket that is only slightly more powerful than those designed 40 years ago.  While a goal, I do not think this qualifies as ambitious by any means.  President Obama had a vision of making it to Mars with a manned mission by the mid-2030s.  Many called this ambitious as well.  How is this ambitious when your maximum term length in office is eight years, not 20 years.  Ambitious would have been more Kennedy-like, with a goal of the Moon within 8 years and Mars in 10 years.  Many people alive today were not around 40+ years ago when man first landed on the Moon and with this goal of 2020 and beyond, 60+ years would have passed before anyone would see such a feat again. 

It's unfortunate that many people do not understand the impact organizations such as NASA can have.  NASA helps the economy in many ways, whether it is through scientific discoveries or technological advancements that come from the program itself or serving as a role model to inspire our young to take on careers in engineering or science and be innovative. 

There are countless new technologies or advancements in existing technologies that have come as a result of America's space program.  One example of this is with MRI technology.  NASA developed technology known as digital image processing in the 1960s to enhance Moon pictures.  Today this technology is incorporated into the field of medicine with MRI and CATScan machines.  This is just one example, but there are many other benefits as well (see the link above for some examples).  If politicians had a greater understanding the impact of such programs, perhaps we would not be stuck in this present mind set.

The Need for Ambitious, Outside the Box Thinking

Let's get back to Newt's ambitious ideas.  Naturally such thinking results in a backlash due to such things as the fact we still haven't developed a replacement for the space shuttle which is ready for prime time just yet, though it is in the works.  Of course the money and cost become a major concern.   The cost, whether private or NASA funded, to return to the moon with a permanent presence, has been estimated at a few hundred billion dollars.  Even consider the cost of going to Mars for instance, something in the realm of $400+ billion dollars, but then contrast these plans with the cost of wars such as Iraq and Afghanistan.  Estimated costs there have been in the multi-trillions.  Many also view his statement as just appealing to Florida voters, since the recent budget cuts for NASA funding.

Ambitious statements such as Newt Gingrich's may seem outlandish given today's state of world affairs, they can have a uniting impact as well, not just for America but world-wide.  Such a return to the moon would be seen as a feat for humanity, not just the United States.  While such a program may cost money to develop, it will certainly create jobs and spinoffs here on Earth as well.  Not only that there are other commercial and science based reasons to go to the moon.

Why go to the Moon?

More recent findings on the moon show it has water, enough that we wouldn't have to bring as many supplies from Earth to sustain such a colony.  There is certainly an abundance of Hydrogen, which can be used for rocket fuel.  Among the commercial reasons to go there include minerals that exist on the moon.  One is Vacuum processed pure aluminum. 

Such a moon platform would also act as a great eye on our own world for research.  The moon of course, provides a great platform to observe deep space, especially on the far side where it effectively a radio silent area, which can be used for such programs as SETI.  Of course the natural stepping stone of a moon colony is that of going to Mars and beyond.  The research done on the moon will provide much advancement needed for the Mars manned mission.

If we sit back and wait for someone else to get to the moon and beyond, how is that helping drive our thinking and advancements forward?  China is rapidly advancing their space program, with a goal of the moon in the near future as well.  NASA and space travel isn't currently the inspiration that it once was but it certainly can be again.  Ultimately though, the primary motivation should come from the entire world, all of humanity as a long term goal.   One thing is certain; humanity must ultimately branch outward towards the stars, if it is to survive in the long term.  This is inevitable. 

So Newt Gingrich's statement is bold in that this is the type of thinking that America should strive towards.  Not just in terms of the space program, but as a whole.  Such a return to this type of thinking would ultimately drive America away from the mediocrity that exists today towards a bolder future, both in America and for the world as a whole.

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