Newt gave a moon speech, and everyone laughed.
Ok, not everyone. Some space nerds (no offense) were thrilled and flattered about Newt Gingrich's space speech last week in Florida in which he advocated building a lunar colony and turning it into the 51st American state. Space advocates were evidently so hungry for some - any! - major American politician who shows them some love and attention and who thinks big, galactic-sized thoughts that they simply didn't realize that the messenger counts as much as the message. And both failed.
As I predicted more than once, the ensuing mockery of Newt's "lunar colonies" plan is a PR disaster for those who see the value in returning to the moon. His ideas have been roundly ridiculed - culminating in the opening skit on last night's Saturday Night Live, and Gingrich himself has been put on the defensive on the issue both against the press as well as his Republican rivals.
There are two reasons why what seemed to some space advocates to be a great thing for U.S. space has turned out so badly.
First, the degree of credibility of someone making a case for something matters as much as what that person is saying. Outside his very conservative base of supporters Newt Gingrich is widely seen as a "blowhard", "grandiose", "nutty" - what have you. Whether those perceptions are fair or not is not the point. Allow me to use this admittedly unfair metaphor: if a crazy person standing on the street is screaming about his idea to heal burn victims with a stem cell gun, you're going to discount it as the ravings of an insane person. If, ten minutes later, you hear the same thing being voiced by Bill Gates or National Geographic that such a "skin gun" actually exists, you're going to think that idea is not crazy but the most amazingly brilliant idea you've ever heard. Rightly or wrongly, Newt Gingrich is not taken seriously by many people outside of a particular minority segment of the American political spectrum.*
Second, Gingrich failed to make a convincing case for why we should go back to the moon, much less have settlements. Newt's case for lunar colonies was implicitly based on a "national greatness" idea of the American space program, and secondarily as a way to inspire younger generations to excel in STEM education. In one sense that's admirable if it's aimed at getting citizens to pull together and aspire to great things, but it's not benign to the degree that it's based on jingoistic notions of American Exceptionalism. Since Gingrich explicitly said that his lunar bases will be "American", it's reasonable to assume the latter and that international space cooperation wouldn't be his way of going about it. Suffice to say I think that's unwise as well as unworkable. More importantly, Gingrich failed to make the case for how a lunar base can help solve problems on Earth. He didn't talk about the possible value of helium-3, platinum group metals, or using lunar water to create hydrogen/oxygen fuel depots to enable a cislunar space transportation architecture. Or how technological spinoffs will help spur technological innovations in energy, resource input efficiency, or telemedicine to improve sustainability on Earth. (Even though he's running to please the Tea Party constituency who doesn't particularly care about such things, one would think that a "Great Leader" - which is how he thinks of himself - would recognize the value of such things.)
Indeed, there are many good reasons why a moon exploration and settlement is a worthy idea. But space exploration is so outside ordinary people's concerns that a proposal - seemingly out-of-the-blue, and in an anemic economy - for a "lunar colony", just to show how great we are (oh, and btw it'll be the 51st state!) just seems so outlandish, so wackadoodle, that it's no wonder people laughed. If I weren't better informed on the real possibilities of lunar exploration for solving sustainability problems back on our home planet, I would likely join them.
If the space advocate community can't make the case that space exploration is a viable technology pathway to develop solutions to problems on Earth, it simply won't happen. People won't support it.