Oh, the news that was made in Florida this week. America’s manned space program is roaring back! We’re developing new kinds of rocket engines to get us to Mars in record time. We’re building airports from which five space missions can be launched every day — many of them carrying tourists. We’re going back to the moon, and not just to visit — to build a whole colony. Oh, and when that lunar colony has at least 13,000 permanent residents: Hello, 51st state!
The best part of all this? We don’t have to wait decades for the moon base to be built and the tourists to start packing. It’ll all happen by 2021 — which is otherwise known as the end of Newt Gingrich’s second term as President. According to Newt Gingrich.
Gingrich laid out his plans for the U.S.’s next decade in space during a campaign event at Brevard Community College in Florida, and to be fair, he’s hardly the first presidential candidate to talk up the local industry in a state that’s just days away from holding a primary. Still, this wasn’t just any candidate delivering just any stump speech. This was top-shelf, grade A, golden delicious Gingrich.
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“I come at space from a standpoint of a romantic belief that I believe it really is part of our destiny,” the ex-Speaker said. “Does that mean I’m a visionary? You betcha. I was attacked the other night for being grandiose. I would just want you to note: Lincoln standing at Council Bluffs was grandiose. The Wright brothers standing at Kitty Hawk were grandiose. John F. Kennedy was grandiose. I accept the charge that I am grandiose and that Americans are instinctively grandiose.”
Leave aside for a moment that the professor, politician and former not-a-lobbyist for Freddie Mac either doesn’t understand that grand and grandiose are two very different things or else does understand and is copping to more delusion and fabulism than one might want in a President. The real problem is that Gingrich often doesn’t seem to get that merely being willing to say any damn thing is not the same as being able to do any damn thing, especially when the challenges you’re taking on don’t involve just political rivals and government policy but the hard laws of engineering and physics, which are a wee bit less amenable to jawboning and dealmaking.
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So let’s start with those lunar bases. Living on the moon is a heck of an idea, but it’s really nice to have a reason to live there first. Some mission planners have talked about telescopes on the moon’s far side. Some have argued for lunar homesteads as a dress rehearsal for longer-term habitation of Mars. Gingrich’s reason, as expressed in his other speeches, would be lunar mining. What does the moon have that the Earth doesn’t? Helium-3 — a nonradioactive isotope of helium that would be the perfect fuel for fusion reactors. Haul enough of the stuff home, and you can break the world of its dependency on oil forever, replacing fossil fuel with a clean, safe superfuel. Best of all, the U.S. would control the supply chain — at least at first.
Great. Of course there’s the teensy problem that we still need to, you know, invent a practical fusion reactor, something we’ve never been able to do despite decades of trying. Even if one did exist, there’d be the problem of money. It costs a Russian proton rocket $2,200 to put a single pound of payload into low Earth orbit; it used to cost the shuttles a stunning $8,100. Now imagine the price tag for hauling thousands of tons of mining equipment out to the moon and thousands of tons of helium-3 back. The excavation operation itself would be no picnic either. Harrison Schmitt, the Apollo 17 lunar-module pilot, estimates that it would take 220 lb. (100 kg) of helium-3 to power a city the size of Dallas for a year, and that to collect that much, you’d have to dig a trench 0.75 miles square by 9 ft. deep (1.9 sq km by 2.7 m). If you doubt Schmitt, consider that not only was he an astronaut, he’s also a geologist and served a term as a U.S. Senator, which means that he’s played both in his own backyard and in Gingrich’s. Any wonder that helium-3 fusion is not remotely ready to pass the “net energy” test — meaning it generates more power and money than it costs?
But never mind that. The lunar Jamestown will be up and running in nine years all the same.
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Then there’s the matter of Newt’s five-flights-a-day spaceports. Since the first practical rocket lofted the first practical payload, aeronautical engineers have dreamed of building what’s known as the single stage to orbit (SSTO) spacecraft, a ship that could take off and land like an airplane, shedding no stages or other parts along the way. That, of course, is the only way to fly the kind of multiple, quick-turnaround missions Gingrich envisions. But there’s a reason an SSTO has never been built: In order to lift a one-piece ship that never gets lighter by shedding parts, you need an extraordinarily powerful engine, which requires an extraordinarily big load of fuel. This, of course, adds weight, which calls for an even bigger engine and even more fuel — adding more weight still and on and on. Designers have been chasing that spiraling equation down the same engineering drain for years and have never reached bottom. The last serious attempt the U.S. made to build an SSTO was in the late 1980s, when NASA and the Air Force collaborated to build the National Aerospace Plane — a messy amalgam of ramjets, scramjets and rocket engines — before they threw up their hands and walked away.
Surely, the SSTO puzzle will one day be cracked — with a combination of lighter materials, more-efficient engines and more-energy-dense fuel all contributing to the success. But Gingrich has largely skipped this stage. The planes are queuing up by 2021, so the designers had better hurry.
Newt’s big dreams are all of a piece. He envisions a “continuous propulsion system” that will get us to Mars in a “remarkably short time.” But the only such continuous system now in operation is ion propulsion, which takes a very long time to accelerate and actually slows things down in the short term — not good at all when a crew is on board. And Gingrich steers mostly clear of figuring out how to pay for all his plans, except to say that the private sector would sort things out. It’s private, after all. And it’s, um, a sector. Isn’t that enough? Forget that the Gemini and Apollo programs that got us to the moon cost $30 billion in 1975 money, or $126 billion today. Forget that in 1989, when the first President Bush floated the idea of a manned Mars program, his budget team put the cost at $500 billion — or about $867 billion now. What could possibly induce today’s private industry to take on that kind of R&D expense with no promise of payback? Federal prize money, Gingrich says. Really.
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Give Newt his props. He’s indeed an imaginative thinker. He works hard to bring science into a presidential campaign that too often ignores the topic altogether. But even at the Jan. 26 debate, he exhibited a woeful lack of either knowledge or honesty about why the manned space program has been stuck for so long. He blamed NASA for not having a heavy-lift vehicle to match the Saturn V, mockingly asking if the people at agency headquarters just sit around and “think space” all day. But NASA did have a smart plan for a heavy-lift vehicle. It was called the Ares V, and it went into design in 2005, but the plug was pulled on it in 2010 because funding was cut off. A new heavy-lift booster is now being developed to replace it, and its design, based in part on old Saturn V ideas and in part on shuttle technology, is smart, economical, and proven.
During the debate, he also doubled down on his idea that government prizes could stimulate private industry to invest in space, citing a $25,000 prize that incentivized Lindberg to fly the Atlantic. A $25,000 prize in 1927, when Lindbergh flew, would be the equivalent of $311,000 today. Think that would be enough to persuade any private company to invest another $500 billion or so?
Newt Gingrich dreams big dreams, and he has a vision — of sorts. But dreams can also be fever dreams, and visions can be hallucinations. Gingrich revealed perhaps more than he wanted when, in his remarks in Florida, he spoke of the need to think big. “You don’t inspire the American nation,” he said, “with trivial, bureaucratically rational objectives.”
But you do with vast, bureaucratically irrational ones? Grandiosity will never be grand. Grandiosity is the thing of empty promises, triumphal arches and Dear Leader shrines. Grandness is the thing of which great nations — and great Presidents — are made.