I alluded to Newt Gingrich’s moonbase plans earlier. I am not totally convinced of the sha
rk’s claims to have colonized space – I admit I have my doubts – but even absent a selachimorphic space empire the Newt’s plan is problematic.
First and foremost, in the speech Newt hisownself used the term grandiose to describe the adventure. Not a good sign, really. A second relaunch of the JFK? A monolithic governmental exercise that pursues a politically chosen goal at all costs, consuming and destroying all other options as it progresses; a program that might (only if successful) result in something kind of amazing but which will leave a sterile policy wasteland where even cockroaches and lobbyists have trouble surviving? More, please.
We are just now recovering from the original sin of Apollo. NASA’s finally shed itself of the ridiculous abomination that was the space shuttle, though I imagine most of the tens of thousands of people who worked on that program are still on the payroll. The 21st century re-imagining of the Apollo program – known collectively or in its parts as Orion, Constellation, Ares, EDS (sounds like a disease you’d be embarrassed to have), Altair and for all I know, “Oh shit we better think of something or we’re fucked” – is on the ropes as well. NASA, through massive effort, the dedication of thousands of brilliant engineers and managers, and the application of hundreds of billions of taxpayer dollars has managed to achieve the impossible: get to the moon six times forty years ago, and make space travel seem as exciting as a local zoning planning board meeting.
There are now several enterprises looking to change that, mostly funded by tech-industry billionaires. Of these, Space-X has the most hardware in actual use. They’ve successfully flown a rocket large enough to put a capsule in orbit. That capsule is about this close to being man-rated, and could carry as many as six people into orbit. They’ve got plans for a heavy lift vehicle that builds off the success of existing rockets and there’s no reason to imagine it wouldn’t work. Elon Musk could be on the moon a decade before Newt, and for far less money. Significantly, far less of our money, since Senor Elon will be spending his own money to do it. And even if Space-X fails because a rocket falls on Musk’s head, there are others – Paul Allen working with Scaled Composites, Bezos with Blue Origin, and more besides.
Please, please, please don’t start another government space program. Because if you do, it will kill a private space industry that is just about off the ground. I want to go into space, and I trust Elon Musk more than I do Newt Gingrich. I said that so I can say this:
I think the most interesting thing about Newt’s speech is that he thought that the moon could become the 51st state. A “Northwest Ordinance for Space” has been ridiculed by some, but I think that making fun of one of the great achievements of the Confederacy is mean-hearted and unwise. The Northwest Ordinance was probably one of the most successful government enterprises ever. By setting things up such that the colonists pushing back the frontier would come into the union on the same terms as the original colonies, now states – that more than anything assured the success of the American experiment.
If we are to avoid a repeat of the whole belters vs. flatlanders wars that we read about in science fiction, we’d need a Northwest Ordinance. Having a framework for communities in space to join on equal terms with their compatriots back home on Earth would be a good thing. And if people heading out knew that they would, in time, be on an equal political footing with those who stayed behind and that the rule of law would extend into space with them, we’d do more for space settlement than spending any amount of actual tax dollar money could ever do.
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