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To Newtly Go

by James Lileks

Count me with Newt if the issue’s the moon. We should have had a base up there by 2001, just like the one in the movie. Of course, if we had built it back then, it would look old and dated now, with ’70s shag rugs or ’80s-style Miami Vice color schemes, and all the computers would be running Windows 95 on chunky monitors. The Internet would be horribly slow; no one would want to work there, because it would take six days to download that YouTube video of the talking dog. The New York Times would run a series: “Moon Base at Twenty,” and there would be tales of crumbling infrastructure, outdated equipment, how using it as an overflow base for Gitmo detainees really wasn’t working out, and so on.

Maybe it’s okay that we’ve waited.

The moon-base suggestion is classic Newt; he has a gift for thinking big and synthesizing disparate ideas. Sometimes it’s silly — he reads an article about solar collectors in geosynchronous orbit right before he gives a speech to a literacy group and says, “We can beam the reflected light of the sun into poor neighborhoods so children can read at night.”

Newt’s plan is also classic dork, which is charming. Everyone who was a sci-fi dork in high school knows the type — smudged glasses, short-sleeve shirts with a protractor in the pocket, brown stiff Sears slacks, a bike named after a Star Trek shuttlecraft. We nerds remember how it burned when you saw the pretty girl from English class talking to Rip Squarejaw, the rich kid who was also head of the student council and captain of the football team. How you hated Rip. If only she knew what a phony he was and how deep and meaningful Ray Bradbury could be. You never forget your loathing of Rip Squarejaw, and when he puts out ads you regard as misleading, and beats you in Iowa, well, it’s like the sting never went away.

But oy, the huge expense of fulfilling our national destiny. I’m talking about the moon base, not Newt’s Florida TV-ad buy. Some estimates say a moon base would cost $230 billion; others say $500 billion, if you include the granite tops and halogen lights in the kitchen. It will surely be costly, but you can guarantee that between now and 2030 an equal amount will fall out of the federal pocket and get lost in the sofa cushions, so we might as well do something with it. We could build spacecraft that don’t look like a compulsive hoarder’s VW bus. We could design a station that looks sleek, buy all the furniture online — if the government had Amazon Prime, they’d have to cover the shipping, which would save billions. Forget the talk about making the moon the 51st state, though; we signed a treaty in 1967 that forbade national claims in space. But hey, if the thing were big enough to be seen from earth, and the buildings just happened to spell out “U.S.A.,” what could they do?

Maybe Bain Capital could fund a mission to exploit the moon’s resources. The moon has helium-3, used in nuclear fusion. It has plenty of platinum, which could become so plentiful that credit cards would have to use another metal to indicate exclusivity. Right now there are only about 600 million tons of titanium on earth, and most of it will go to building pointless skyscrapers in Dubai. If we found huge amounts of gold you could get Ron Paul to vote yes; he’d probably show up on the launch pad in an astronaut suit the next day, waving his arms and shouting “Let’s light this candle!” But these are practical matters. There’s the intangible national-pride value of being The Guys Who Are Up There Doing Space Things, which has always been America’s rep. Do you want to look up at the moon every night and think, It’s full of oligarchical Chinese collectivists? Don’t put it past them: China will run out of space for immense, unoccupied, pre-built cities in 260 years. Those guys think ahead. You want to keep a housing boom going, you start throwing up 30-story apartment buildings in the Sea of Tranquility.

You could say that America’s boldly-go ethos is over, and we’ve realized that the natural progression from Mercury to Gemini to Apollo to Shuttle to (invent some stuff here) to Starship Enterprise has been proved to be an illusion. Recent events seem to agree: The online travel company Priceline announced in January that it would be dropping William Shatner from its commercials, which really suggests it’s over. You could say no, our spacefaring spirit continues: NASA has a ship en route to Mars, and it’ll deploy a vehicle five times the size of the previous rovers. The pictures it sends back can be downloaded directly to a smart-phone app. Boomer kids never saw that one coming, eh? Tiny pocket computers with more processing power than the moon-mission modules, receiving wireless transmissions from Mars. Your pocket computer can also call up news of the Cassini probe, which just flew past Titan, one of Saturn’s moons. We’re still out there. We’re still looking. We’re still flinging machines as hard and far as we can, just to learn. It remains an age of marvels.

But a base would be cool. Perhaps the moon will be colonized like North America: Hardy pilgrims, their religion repressed at home, take to the void in small ships. I’m not saying we should outlaw Scientology just to make this happen, but there’s an upside: Humans return to our moon. Downside: They change its name to New Travolta.

– Mr. Lileks blogs at www.lileks.com.

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