Space Exploration and Presidential Politics: Newt Gingrich Has Said That If He Becomes President a Lunar Colony Will Be a High Priority, Raising the Question, "What Should Americans Do in Space, and Who Should Pay for It?"

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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 51 st 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.

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Gingrich's comments in Florida could be seen as 11th-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 Crier 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 mime 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 lunar 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 oft a hill;"

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In stark contrast to Gingrich s grand--even grandiose--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 I 1 mission brought the first American astronauts to walk on the moon. American public opinion retained a rather positive assessment of the historic mission. …