Author: Heiser, James
Date published: April 9, 2012
Although the topic of space exploration and colonization rarely makes the headlines in the mainstream media, Republican presidential candidate Newt Gingrich recently discovered that it remains a topic that can draw a passionate response. On January 25, Gingrich unveiled what he deemed his "weirdest idea ever": a proposal for receiving a future moon colony as the 51st star on the American flag. Regardless of the candidate's own assessment of the "weirdness" of his idea, that did not stop him from making the campaign promise in Florida that by the end of a hypothetical second term of a Gingrich presidency the United States would have a permanent lunar colony.
Gingrich's comments in Rorida couíd be seen as llth-hour politics on the eve of a primary in a state that is perceived to have profited from past American ventures into space - including the Apollo moon program of the 1960s and '70s. But Gingrich's "weirdest idea" was, in fact, something he proposed to Congress in 1981, when he was in his first term in the House of Representatives. As Peter Grier wrote for the Christian Science Monitor on January 26:
As Gingrich noted Wednesday, he's outlined his ideas for space self-government before. As a young member of Congress in 1981, he introduced a bill he now refers to as the Northwest Ordinance for Space, but back then went by the more prosaic name of National Aeronautics and Space Policy Act of 1981....
Title IV covers "Government of Space Territories." It begins in a sweeping manner: all persons residing in any US space community (which could be anywhere from the moon to Jupiter, we guess) "shall be entitled to the protection of the Constitution of the United States.". . .
The second section of Title IV says that when a US space colony holds 20,000 people, it will be able to hold a convention to establish a constitution and form of self-government for itself. Kind of like Philadelphia in 1787, only with external oxygen supplies.
Title IV's third section establishes that whenever said space colony holds the same number of people as the least populous US state (right now, that's Wyoming, at 544,270) it will be admitted as a US state "on an equal footing with the original states."
Gingrich's tunar republic may strike many critics as being just as implausible in 2012 as it was in 1981, but presidential candidates are rarely given to public eruptions of eccentricity. Raising the topic of space exploration and settlement may not only be a candidate's "weirdest idea ever," or even crass electioneering in a state that profited from the "space race": It is an appeal to sentiment rooted in the United States' self-image as a frontier nation and a "shining city on a hill."
In stark contrast to Gingrich's grand - even granthose - vision for the future of space exploration and colonization, President Obama seems to lack any vision for a new frontier. President Obama's space policy is a significant departure from the record of his predecessors, both Democrat and Republican, stretching back to the beginning of the "Space Age." The earthly realities of years of recession and burgeoning government deficit spending challenge continuation of the status quo in America's space program; NASA's bureaucracy has repeatedly raised the fundamental question of whether it is the proper vehicle for further human exploration of the solar system. But Obama appears to intend to maintain NASA's budget, while stripping the space agency of any grand mission motivating its existence. In other areas of human endeavor, private initiative has demonstrated its superiority over government bureaucracies. Should space ventures be any different?
Space Exploration and a New Frontier
More than 40 years after the Apollo 11 mission brought the first American astronauts to walk on the moon, American public opinion retained a rather positive assessment of the historic mission. A Gallup poll conducted in 2009 for the 40th anniversary of the first moon landing found that the estimation of the value of the Apollo program had actually grown in public opinion, having risen steadily from 41 percent of respondents believing in 1981 that "the space program has brought enough benefits to this country to justify its costs" to a high of 58 percent in 2009. In fact, those who were too young to remember the "space race" had a more positive assessment of the Apollo program than those who had actually witnessed it:
Notably, those old enough to remember the historic moon landing are actually somewhat less likely than those who are younger to think the space program's costs are justified. Among Americans aged 50 and older (who were at least 10 years oíd when the moon landing occurred), 54% think the space program's benefits justify its costs, compared with 63% of those aged 18-49.
However, the public opinion measured in the Gallup poll was far less favorable of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) than it was of the program forever linked to NASA's "glory days." In 2009, 60 percent either supported the current level of NASA funding (46 percent), or favored increasing it (14 percent); as noted by Gallup, this percentage "is on the low end of what Gallup has measured since 1 984, when the question was first asked." In short, a growing number of Americans may look favorably on the glory days of NASA's past, but they are less inclined than previously to support the ongoing funding of that same governmental agency.
Whatever the current assessment of the involvement of a governmental agency in space exploration, the desire to explore the heavens has been articulated since the Age of Exploration. Even during the age when men were still expanding the boundaries of the known world, there were some individuals already dreaming of exploration beyond the confines of Earth. As John Wilkins (1614-1672) - a founding member of the British Royal Society and future Anglican bishop - wrote in 1638 in his book, The Discovery of a World in the Moon:
In the first ages of the world the Islanders either thought themselves to be the only dwellers upon the Earth, or else if there were any other, yet they could not possibly conceive how they might have any commerce with them, being severed by the deep and broad Sea, but the after-times found out the invention of ships, in which notwithstanding none but some bold daring men durst venture, there being few so resolute as to commit themselves unto the vast Ocean, and yet now how easy a thing is this, even to a timorous and cowardly nature? So, perhaps, there may be some other means invented for a conveyance to the Moon, and though it may seem a terrible and impossible thing ever to pass through the vast spaces of the air, yet no question there would be some men who durst venture this as well as the other. True indeed, I cannot conceive any possible means for the like discovery of this conjecture, since there can be no sailing to the Moon, unless that were true which the Poets do but feign, that she made her bed in the Sea. We have not now any Drake or Columbus to undertake this voyage, or any Daedalus to invent a conveyance through the air. However, I doubt not but that time who is still the father of new truths, and hath revealed unto us many things which our Ancestors were ignorant of, will also manifest to our posterity, that which we now desire, but cannot know.
When Wilkins published his book, a generation had already passed since a small band of Pilgrims had begun their settlement of a new world, and Puritans such as John Winthrop were defending their "intended Plantation in New England." Winthrop declared to his shipmates in 1630 on the way to New England that their endeavor to settle in this new land would place them before the eyes of the old world: "For we must consider that we shall be as a city upon a hill. The eyes of all people are upon us, so that if we shall deal falsely with our God in this work we have undertaken, and so cause him to withdraw his present help from us, we shall be made a story and a by-word through the world." The religious motivation for the settlement of the new world was met with a success unparalleled by previous endeavors in North America, and the civilization thus begun grew and expanded across a continent, with the knowledge and beliefs brought from the old world shaping a new nation.
Within living memory of the founding of the American Republic, President Thomas Jefferson persuaded the Congress to fund what was initially called the Corps of Discovery - which history remembers as the Lewis and Clark expedition. The cost overruns of the expedition are in keeping with the pattern of such governmental undertakings: An expedition that was originally expected to cost $2,500 eventually reached $50,000. Given a federal budget of $8.2 million in 1803 (the year Jefferson requested funding for the expedition), the cost for the Corps of Discovery was still a smaller portion of the federal budget than the $17.7 billion proposed for NASA in Obama's fiscal 2013 budget of $3.803 trillion - but then, much of NASA's budget (unlike that of the Lewis and Clark expedition) is devoted to supporting an agency's bureaucracy, rather than exploration.
When President Jefferson sought federal funding for the expedition, he defended the constitutionality of such funding in a secret letter to Congress, dated January 18, 1803. In that letter, Jefferson based his constitutional argument for such an action in the area of the "interests of commerce":
The interests of commerce place the principal object within the constitutional powers and care of Congress, and that it should incidentally advance the geographical knowledge of our own continent, cannot be but an additional gratification. The nation claiming the territory, regarding this as a literary pursuit, which is in the habit of permitting within its dominions, would not be disposed to view it with jealousy, even if the expiring state of its interests there did not render it a matter of indifference. The appropriation of two thousand five hundred dollars, "for the purpose of extending the external commerce of the United States," while understood and considered by the Executive as giving the legislative sanction, would cover the undertaking from notice, and prevent the obstructions which interested individuals might otherwise previously prepare in its way.
The Lewis and Clark expedition was far from the only government-sponsored exploration undertaken in the earliest days of the Republic; others, such as the Pike Expedition led by Army Captain Zebulon Montgomery Pike (1779-1813), further explored the West in 1806-1807. And later expeditions, such as that led by Lt. Commander George Washington DeLong during the years 1 879- 1881, explored the Arctic with a mixed crew of naval officers, enlisted men, and civilians aboard a privately owned steamer, the Jeannette, claiming several islands for the United States.
In the late 19th century, historian Frederick Jackson Turner defended the hypothesis that the frontier experience fundamentally shaped the American character, as the civilization brought from the old world interacted with the conditions of the new world. The opening of that frontier involved both governmental and private efforts for exploration and settlement - but it was the countless private actions of millions of men and women that settled the expanding frontier and built a nation in the wilderness. The earliest failures to settle North America revealed the deficiencies of efforts by existing governments to successfully colonize the new world; initially, it was often the personal commitment of men and women who engaged in settlements motivated out of religious conviction or prospects for personal gain that opened the frontier time and again. Government undeniably played a role in exploration and provided some measure of military protection to settlers, but the work of settling the new world relied upon the private efforts to succeed. Government settlements such as New Sweden (in present day New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and Delaware) or New Netherland (in New York, New Jersey, Connecticut, and Delaware) are little more than items of historical curiosity today; private efforts rooted in personal convictions led to a nation that fulfilled Winthrop's vision of a "shining city on a hill."
Obama and the Future of Space Exploration
Newt Gingrich's "weirdest idea" has given occasion for consideration of the prospects for human exploration of the heavens. Unfortunately, Gingrich views the approach to human exploration and eventual colonization of space as a governmental endeavor - at least in terms of funding. According to the Washington Post,
Gingrich proposed doing this without increasing NASA's budget. Instead, he'd transform the agency's culture, rely heavily on private industry and leverage American ingenuity. He said he'd use 10 percent of the NAS A budget - which would amount to nearly $2 billion a year - to create prizes, incentives for entrepreneurs to achieve spaceflight milestones....
Mitt Romney blasted Gingrich's moon base idea during the presidential debate Thursday night [January 26], saving, "That's an enormous expense," and suggesting Gingrich has been pandering to voters by making budgetbusting promises at every campaign stop. He added, "It may be a big idea, but it's not a good idea." ...
Gingrich stuck to his guns, saying his program would be "90 percent private sector" and he'd like to see space flight become so common that there would be "six or seven launches a day." He added: "I'd like to have an American on the moon before the Chinese get there."
Gingrich's "90 percent private sector" approach would have the government going into the business of space colonization, blending government and private funds into an amalgam that could easily both confound the effort and pervert its results. Blending public and private funds in partnerships is a step toward socialism and fascism, with government funding guaranteeing governmental control over the end result of the partnership.
While Gingrich's plan could lead to governmental control of colonization efforts, President Obama's approach to space policy would have the United States move away from any effort to send forth "Lewis and Clark"-style expeditions to the new frontier. Obama's proposed budget for 2013 sets forth few areas in which the flow of federal largesse is restricted in the slightest. With a deficit of $903 billion proposed for the next fiscal year, the notion of truly cutting spending is far from the agenda on either end of Pennsylvania Avenue.
Among the few areas where the administration is proposing to cut spending next year in the absolute sense (not just cuts in previously projected increases) is NASA's budget - from $17.8 in fiscal 2012 to $17.7 in fiscal 2013. According to a February 17 article by Brian Berger and Dan Leone for Space.com ("White House to Propose Funding Cut for NASA"), the largest cut - $300 million - in NASA's budget would come from the planetary science division budget, scrapping Mars missions that would have taken an orbiter and a rover to the Red Planet in 2016 and 2018. The proposed budget for the planetary science division - which accomplishes much of the NASA work that draws public interest - would amount to less than 10 percent ($ 1 .2 billion) of the overall NASA budget. In fact, the cuts may be targeted on a popular aspect of NASA's mission precisely because that raises the possibility for public outrage over the budget cut; Republicans and Democrats will likely once again find themselves outspending even a President's extravagant proposals, while clucking their tongues over the resultant budget deficits.
President Obama's vision of the future for these United States appears more in step with the agenda of the environmental Left - and it is a future of diminishing resources in a smaller, poorer world. But while Obama retreats from the new frontier, private corporations such as SpaceX are seeking better ways to explore that frontier. On March 1 , SpaceX successfully tested its Dragon capsule - a privately designed space craft - for which NASA is already contracted to use for flights to and from the International Space Station, since the government owned and operated Space Shuttles are no longer in service.
While private corporations such as SpaceX are busy reducing the cost of getting payloads into low Earth orbit, the political class has lowered its collective gaze from the horizon of human potential to squabble over "carbon footprints" and economic crises. For men and women of vision - desiring a new frontier beyond the closed horizons of the globalists - the future is not found in abandoning exploration, or turning the future of colonization into a collectivist amalgam of public and private agendas and funding. The frontier is freedom, or it is not a frontier at all.
Fighting over budgets for a federal agency that has not taken a human being beyond low Earth orbit in four decades raises the question of whether reliance on government to open the new frontier has led the "Space Age" in the wrong direction. Whatever the budgetary logic, and geopolitical concerns, of the 1950s through 1970s, prospects for human settlement on the moon, Mars, or elsewhere in the solar system are not primarily the concern of the federal government. Brave men and women, motivated by a desire for freedom and fortune, open new frontiers, and build civilizations.
The Rt. Rev. James Heiser is bishop of the Evangelical Lutheran Diocese of North America and pastor of Salem Lutheran Church in Malone, Texas. He is a founding member of the Mars Society, and serves on the society's Board of Directors and Steering Committee.