Gingrich is right about the space program

Dorian Davis Adjunct Journalism Professor, Marymount Manhattan College
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Judging from his tone, Mitt Romney must have been hoping to paint Newt Gingrich as a spendthrift nut when he brought up Gingrich’s past support for a “lunar colony” at Saturday’s GOP debate, but Gingrich hit back with his usual bravado and made an important point:

“I’m proud of trying to find things that give young people a reason to study science and math and technology and telling them that some day in their lifetime, they could dream of going to the moon, they could dream of going to Mars,” he told the Ames, Iowa crowd. “And I’m happy to defend the idea that America should be in space and should be there in an aggressive, entrepreneurial way.”

He’s right.

We used to have a visceral connection to space. When NASA put a man on the moon in 1969, space flight turned overnight into the personification of the American spirit, an attitude that lasted well into the ’80s. I knew the astronauts’ names in kindergarten, and almost everybody I knew at the time could tell you who said “one giant leap for mankind.” The biggest movie franchise in the world was Star Wars — and Democrats even co-opted that term, derisively, of course, for President Reagan’s missile defense plan. But subsequent shuttle missions failed to capture the public imagination and cuts to NASA’s budget along with accidents with the Challenger and Columbia seemed to hamper space exploration. Congress pulled the plug on NASA’s involvement in the SETI (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence) program in 1993. George W. Bush’s proposal for a manned mission to Mars fizzled. And last summer, NASA launched its last space shuttle.

We still have a presence up there, to be sure. The U.S. Air Force, for instance, is now pursuing space flight. It launched its top-secret X-37B into orbit last March. And last Wednesday, NASA researchers announced that one of their unmanned rovers had found “powerful” evidence of water on Mars.

But there’s no John F. Kennedy-esque national public commitment. While NASA plans to continue research into and development of commercial space flight, budget cuts have forced it to postpone its plans, its chief told the Senate last month. The private sector can take over research into commercial space flight. Virgin Galactic seems to be doing just that. But the government has to be active in space for national security reasons, if nothing else. Last summer, China orchestrated a rendezvous of two satellites in space, a maneuver that it could use to “kill” satellites in the future. That alone should make skeptics think twice before sapping NASA and Pentagon budgets.

I’ve made fun of Gingrich before. There’s a lot to make fun of. But zapping him on the space program is shortsighted pandering. Our presence in space is a strategic necessity. But it’s more than that too. Last spring, a Marist poll found that kids no longer want to be astronauts. That’s a generation no longer inspired to reach for the stars. It’s un-American. And it has to change. For this to be another “American century,” we have to go, in the words of George H.W. Bush, “back to the moon, back to the future, and this time back to stay.”

Dorian Davis is a former MTV HITS star turned libertarian writer. He’s been published in Business Week, The New York Daily News, XY & more. He’s an NYU graduate and National Journalism Center alum. He teaches journalism at Marymount Manhattan College.