Charles Homans is a special correspondent for the New Republic and the former features editor of Foreign Policy.
Before the sun had even come up on Jan. 1, 2000, the new millennium had already disappointed Newt Gingrich. As the former House speaker had envisioned it, that New Year's Day was supposed to be marked with the most extraordinary ribbon-cutting in human history: the grand opening of a research base on the moon, jointly operated by all the free nations of the world.
At first, it would be a rough, provisional thing: Crews of four to six people would shunt to and from the outpost on three- or six-month shifts, much like research scientists in Antarctica. Their hours would be mostly preparing for a more permanent lunar presence by standing up the moon base's "self-replicating systems," manufacturing oxygen and water from the lunar soil and tending to its imported greenhouse-style biosphere. It would be a hardscrabble frontier life, but if all went according to plan, a decade later, the base would have blossomed into a full-blown colony, home to as many as 300 people. By midcentury, it would have a population the size of a respectable Midwestern dairy town, its residents busy tending to bustling robot-assisted manufacturing and agricultural industries.
This, at any rate, was the scenario that Gingrich sketched out in the first and most intriguing volume on the ever-metastasizing Gingrich bookshelf, 1984's now out-of-print Window of Opportunity: A Blueprint for the Future. It was a dream he revisited on Jan. 25 in a campaign speech in Cocoa, Florida, in which he reiterated his intentions to build a moon base. (This being a Newt Gingrich speech, he managed to compare himself to Abraham Lincoln, John F. Kennedy, and the Wright Brothers, too).
Gingrich's grand space visions have always served as a sort of shorthand for his appetite for big ideas, the very bigness of which is the point. ("You hear Gingrich's staff has these five file cabinets, four big ones and this little tiny one," Sen. Bob Dole, the Republican Senate majority leader during Gingrich's tenure as House speaker, told a reporter in 1995. "No. 1 is 'Newt's ideas.' No. 2, 'Newt's ideas.' No. 3, No. 4, 'Newt's ideas.' The little one is 'Newt's Good Ideas.'") Every time the former speaker blips back into range on the radar screen of American politics, we hear again about the loopiest of these space plans — the Earth-orbiting array of mirrors reflecting light back upon the Earth, the zero-gravity honeymoons, the lunar greenhouses.
The weirdest thing about Gingrich's space visions, though, is that they suddenly matter. Gingrich has unexpectedly found himself in a nearly dead heat with Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney leading up to Jan. 31's Republican primary in Florida, an economically battered state whose Space Coast — the communities surrounding Cape Canaveral — is so dependent on NASA and its contractors for jobs that the region not long ago changed its area code to the countdown-invoking "321". For once, Gingrich's mania for throwing out big ideas actually comes with some real political stakes.
And those ideas, in recent years, have shifted firmly away from the politically well-tested ground Gingrich occupied in 1984, when he was bullish enough on NASA to put an illustration of a bald eagle embracing the space shuttle on the cover of Window of Opportunity. Today, Gingrich is a harsh critic of NASA; though he still talks about the moon-mining projects and Mars exploration missions, he now talks mostly about private companies, not NASA, doing the mining and the exploring.
These are the views that most politicians would keep to themselves while stumping for votes around Cape Canaveral — and yet Gingrich, being Gingrich, seems unable to resist. When a question about NASA funding came up in the primary debate in Tampa on Monday, Jan. 23, Gov. Mitt Romney gave the safe answer. "It should certainly be a priority," he told the moderator. "What we have right now is a president who does not have a vision or a mission for NASA. And as a result of that, there are people on the Space Coast that are suffering. And Florida itself is suffering as a result." Gingrich, by contrast, declared, "I would like to see vastly more of the money spent encouraging the private sector into very aggressive experimentation. And I'd like a leaner NASA. I don't think building a bigger bureaucracy and having a greater number of people sit in rooms and talk gets you there." This is sort of like telling a crowd at the Iowa State Fair that corn is a mediocre vegetable.
But there is actually more at stake here than just the votes of Floridians. Since Apollo, the space program has posed a particularly diabolical dilemma for conservatives; it is the most sentimental and unimpeachable of patriotic quests, overseen by a government bureaucracy with an endless appetite for taxpayer money. For decades, Republican politicians have taken one look at the stakes — all those voters in NASA-centric states like Florida and Texas, the specter of a Chinese flag joining the American one on the moon — and have swallowed the contradiction without much comment. Not so with Newt. Virtually alone among his partisans, Gingrich has adopted something actually resembling a free-market conservative view of outer space — and he seems inclined to suffer whatever consequences it may bring.