Political debate about space policy is rarely edifying, especially when it arises not from any interest in the subject but from a hamhanded attempt gain a perceived political advantage. That seems to be what happened in the Republican debate on Saturday night.
Asked how his policy positions differed from those of Newt Gingrich, Mitt Romney surprisingly offered as his first example something space-related: “We could start with his idea to have a lunar colony that would mine minerals from the moon. I’m not in favor of spending that kind of money to do that.” Later, he offered another one: “He even talked about a series of mirrors that we could put in space that would light our highways at night. I’ve got some better ideas for our resources.”
As reported by Jeff Foust at Space Politics, Newt’s response was, as usual, swift and expansive:
“I’m proud of trying to find things that give young people a reason to study science and math and technology, and telling them that some day in their lifetime that they can dream of going to the Moon, they can dream of going to Mars,” he said. “I grew up in a generation where the space program was real, where it was important, where, frankly, it is tragic that NASA has been so bureaucratized.” He then cited Iowa State University, just up the road from the debate in Ames, as an example of a place doing “brilliant things” that attract students. “I’m happy to defend the idea that America should be in space and should be there in an aggressive, entrepreneurial way.”
Where did Mitt get this stuff? Probably from this David Brooks column on Newt’s big-government Hamiltonian conservatism:
His 1984 book, “Window of Opportunity,” is a broadside against what he calls the “laissez-faire” conservatism — the idea that government should just get out of the way so the market can flourish. . . .
Gingrich loves government more than I do. He has no Hayekian modesty to restrain his faith in statist endeavor. For example, he has called for “a massive new program to build a permanent lunar colony to exploit the Moon’s resources.” He has suggested that “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.”
Romney spoke as though these were current Gingrich campaign themes, when in fact they come from a book over a quarter of a century old. It’s also worth noting that this is the only mention that Romney has ever made of space policy in the campaign, other than a cryptic, almost non-sequitur comment at the New Hampshire debate in June, in response to a question posed to Gingrich about the then-imminent retirement of the space shuttle:
I think fundamentally there are some people — and most of them are Democrats, but not all — who really believe that the government knows how to do things better than the private sector.
Presumably the target of that comment was Gingrich, but it’s not clear exactly what Governor Romney meant by it.
Newt’s technophilia has been a fundamental part of his political persona since the beginning of his career, as Michelle Quinn pointed out yesterday at Politico. In the early ’80s, when he wrote the book David Brooks refers to, he was on the board of directors of the L-5 Society, which was formed in the ’70s to promote the settlement and industrialization of space (Barry Goldwater was also on the board; the group later merged with the National Space Institute to become the present-day National Space Society). The idea at the time was that orbital colonies, located at points between the earth and the moon, would pay for themselves by constructing giant satellites in geosynchronous orbit using lunar materials (such as silicon and aluminum from the silicates of the lunar highlands) that would collect solar energy and beam it to earth via microwaves. The orbiting-mirrors concept, called “lunetta,” was originated by the brilliant space visionary (and developer of the workhorse Centaur upper stage) Krafft Ehricke. All of this was based on the assumption that the space shuttle was going to live up to its seventies promise of safe, low-cost routine access to space — a promise that, since Challenger was lost in 1986, it has been clear it would never fulfill.
That was then and this is now, and Newt’s space policy has evolved quite a bit since then, but David Brooks and Mitt Romney seem stuck in the early eighties. I don’t think that Newt is promoting lunettas these days, but he remains interested in lunar mining — as are a number of entrepreneurs. For instance, in April of this year, a new company was formed in Silicon Valley by Microsoft veterans and others to start mining it robotically, with a first lunar landing planned as soon as 2013.
Does lunar mining make economic sense? It depends on the markets, of course. There are rare earths there, which are valuable per pound (a useful trait for a commodity with high transportation costs) and strategically important for the electronics industry, and whose price has been skyrocketing recently due to a monopoly on them by China. #more#Some, such as Apollo geologist/astronaut Jack Schmitt, have long promoted lunar mining as a source for helium 3, an isotope with characteristics preferable to deuterium for fusion (though we don’t currently have the reactor technology for it). But the most compelling argument for lunar mining right now is its ability to dramatically reduce the cost of exploration beyond the earth-moon system by using the water and oxygen trapped in lunar rocks to make propellant — which constitutes most of the mass of the payload for giant rockets such as the planned Space Launch System — as well as for life support. Having propellants in other locations allows full reusability of the vehicles, and could make possible not just the exploration but the settlement of the moon and other bodies. Developing such resources would, in the words of George W. Bush science adviser John Marburger, “incorporate the Solar System in our economic sphere.” That, I suspect, is the vision that Newt has in mind.
I also suspect Governor Romney assumed that Newt was proposing a massive NASA project to build the “lunar colony” that the governor derided as unrealistic pie-in-the-sky (almost literally) in austere times. If so, he knocked the stuffing out of a straw man, because Newt is actually on record as wanting to bypass the agency, if not abolish it outright.
I am for a dramatic increase in our efforts to reach out into space, but I am for doing virtually all of it outside of NASA through prizes and tax incentives. NASA is an aging, unimaginative, bureaucracy committed to over-engineering and risk-avoidance which is actually diverting resources from the achievements we need and stifling the entrepreneurial and risk-taking spirit necessary to lead in space exploration.
Nearly two years ago, when the Obama administration came out with its new plan to shift crew transportation to low earth orbit from NASA to competitive commercial industry, Newt (along with Bob Walker and Dana Rohrabacher) was one of the few Republican politicians to support what should have been an obvious position for a Republican supposedly in favor of free enterprise and competition, while most supposed conservatives were demanding, when it came to human spaceflight, a “public option.”
What does this exchange tell us about the two candidates? I think it provides a window into their mindsets. Newt sees space as a frontier of human opportunity and plenty, and wants to direct space policy toward opening it using the traditional American tools of entrepreneurship and competition (unlike most people on the Hill who care about space, who only do so as a means of national prestige and jobs in their states and districts). It’s hard to tell how Mitt Romney views it, since he has not offered an alternative to Gingrich’s vision, but by denigrating the development of new resources because it’s a little too “far out,” he comes off as someone who not only has given no serious thought to space policy other than as a cudgel against his political opponent, but as a soulless technocrat. To me, it was worse than his ten-grand-bet gaffe.