Friday, January 27, 2012

Newt Gingrich: a space cadet with ideas that are out of this world?

By the end of my second term, we will have the first permanent base on the moon and it will be American. (Newt Gingrich)

It certainly qualifies as a BHAG - Big Hairy Audacious Goal for anyone lucky enough to be steeped in management speak. An injection of ambition and cash into the state space industry would be a big sweetener to people listening to Newt Gingrich's message at his Florida campaign rally.

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.

But does the US have that kind of money to spare given the economic conditions and the problems it faces down on Earth? In the Telegraph, Ed West argues that Newt Skywalker's idea is inspired rather than foolish:

Then there is the money; a manned mission to Mars, which would be the next logical step, is estimated to cost in the region of $450 billion, which is quite a lot. But put it in perspective: the total cost for American taxpayers of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan was recently estimated to be between $3.2 and $4 trillion. And on welfare, one think-tank estimates that Barack Obama’s various programmes will cost a staggering $10.3 trillion over a decade.

However, the return on investment of establishing a moonbase is going to be small ... unless someone opens a tuck shop and alien species queue up to buy coke and fries! Monetising the research discoveries made in space is likely to be slow. And eight years is a short time in which to develop, design and test an enormous range of kit to create a moonbase, never mid transport it up there. As Ed West notes:

... after the retirement of the US space shuttle fleet, NASA can’t even get to the International Space Station alone, let alone 250,000 miles away.

Perhaps Newt's answer to his doubters - which include fellow candidate Mitt Romney - should be to look across the border and enlist the help of two Canadian 17 year olds.

Mathew Ho and Asad Muhammad sent a Styrofoam capsule carrying a Lego figure holding a Canadian flag 24km up into space - that's "three times the typical cruising altitude of a commercial aircraft". Lifted by a weather balloon and carrying four cameras (including a GoPro) and a mobile phone that sent out its GPS position when it was within 7km of the ground - particularly critical to help find the device when it returned 97 minutes later! - the home made space vehicle even had a home-made parachute to soften its landing. Check out the article in the Toronto Star for more details.

Maybe a couple of teenage Canadians could inspire the US to the moon ... and beyond?

Cross posted on Slugger O'Toole.

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