Friday, January 27, 2012

The Newt Jumped Over the Moon

Nobody expected much from Newt Gingrich. His own name, so easy and so frequently mocked or just mistyped as "Gingrinch," is one of the strangest in modern American politics, and up until a week or so ago almost everyone was in agreement that he would soon drop out of the field of view as Mitt Romney relentlessly powered toward the Republican nomination. Gingrich's win in South Carolina changed all that, gave the Gingrinch that Stole Congress vast new potential - if not necessarily to win, then at least to be a serious competitor in the race. Personally, I find it preferable to Santorum getting spread around everywhere.

Mostly, though, Gingrich seems to have been running on the platform that he's not a super-capitalist, job-destroying corporate raider like Mitt Romney supposedly is. That may have got him enough traction in South Carolina to clinch the primary there, but it's not the sort of stuff that gets people talking. That had to wait until January 25, when in the Space Coast city of Cocoa, Florida he made a speech of the sort that I'd long since given up hope on hearing from a politician.

"By the end of my second term," Gingrich said with incredible optimism, "we will have the first permanent base on the Moon, and it will be American."

Not the sort of thing you usually hear coming from American political candidates, even in the context of fishing for Space Coast votes. It's the sort of bold, optimistic, triumphalist claim that feels completely out of place in the twenty-first century that we've stumbled into; it feels more like something out of the twenty-first century that we were looking forward to back in 1985 or so. A base on the moon!

Predictably enough, he's taking flak for it from all sides. The most common reaction I've found on Twitter, repeated again and again and again, is a variation of "will he be the first one to go there?" Jon Stewart took the plan to task, but since the video's on Hulu I can't find out what was actually said. However, it seems like the most common response is a mocking one, that the concept of a lunar base is in itself ridiculous or some kind of impossible dream. I'll admit that, yes, Gingrich's plan is possible.

Possible in that it does not contravene any currently-known physical laws, much like it's possible for me to quit my job tomorrow and walk to Halifax.

The way to the moon is a difficult one.

In particular, what I've noticed being picked up in the media is 13,000, Newt's magic number. The Huffington Post framed it as an integral part of his plan, that Newt is aiming to put not just a lunar base up there by the 2020s, but a colony thirteen thousand-strong. This is a bit of a misreading, I think. He does not actually state that he wants a base of that population to be done at that time; he's talking about a "Northwest Ordinance for Space" he apparently proposed early in his political career, about how when the American population of the moon passes 13,000 they would be able to petition Washington to form a new state.

That sort of population is another one of those things that is technically possible, but in the same way as me swimming the Atlantic from Halifax to Bordeaux and then walking from there to Vladivostok is technically possible. I was curious about it, so I ran the numbers using the SpaceX Dragon crew capsule, which will likely be the backbone of American spaceflight in the near future. The Dragon has a crew capacity of seven, so in order to have a 13,000-strong colony on Luna by January 19, 2021, the end of Gingrich's second term, there would need to be one thousand, eight hundred and fifty-eight launches.

Put another way, that's one launch a day every day for more than five years, starting in December 2015. Realistically, though, it would be considerably more than that, as that schedule of launches just leaves eighteen hundred capsules on the lunar surface and thirteen thousand people with no support systems whatsoever. The required cargo launches would vastly, vastly exceed the personnel launches, and in order to meet that schedule the first of thousands of Falcon 9 rockets would probably have to lumber off the pad next Tuesday. I don't think SpaceX has that kind of spare manufacturing capacity hanging around, though it would work wonders for economy-of-scale rocket production.

Even that ignores the political realities of a territorial claim on the moon. You can't do it, at least not under the current framework of space law. The Outer Space Treaty prohibits all national territorial claims to celestial bodies; presumably, one of the motivating forces of this was to throw up roadblocks to the crew of a successful Soviet moon mission establishing the Lunar Soviet Socialist Republic. I could understand ignorance from Romney or Ron Paul on this sort of thing, but I'd expect Gingrich would at least be aware of the Outer Space Treaty.

The biggest issue is, in the end, the fact that this is literally the worst time in history for the United States to seriously contemplate building a moonbase. At no time since the development of spaceflight has its economic and social situation been listing so severely. As alluring as the concept is, I have to admit that this is not the time for it. Here's hoping that as the years roll on, it won't just slip further out of reach.

Ultimately, though, my primal response to the news was this: god dammit, why did it have to be Newt?

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