Are we still too great a nation to be limited to small dreams?

On January 25, 2012 former Speaker of the House turned presidential candidate Newt Gingrich stood in front of crowd of supporters in Brevard County Florida. In his effort to win the Florida presidential primary, the candidate spoke boldly of his intention to establish a permanent US base on the surface of the moon by the end of his second term in office if he were elected president. This was probably the most ambitious spaceflight challenge to be placed before the American people since JFK's challenge to land a man on the moon and return him safely to the earth before the end of the 1960s.

What is perhaps more telling about the current state of the American spirit then Speaker Gingrich's challenge is the wide spread reaction to it. Although we can normally expect his political opponents to use it against him, or even to mock him, it is almost disturbing to see the same reaction throughout much of the spaceflight community. From spaceflight blogs to spaceflight Internet forums to spaceflight publications many individuals in the aerospace community seem spring-loaded to openly scoff at the very idea that such a lunar ambition would even be considered by a politician, or the United States at this point in time.

In 1977 newly elected California governor Jerry Brown invented a catchphrase that helped him along his political trail. He concocted the concept that our nation was then in an "era of limits." In other words the United States had only a limited amount of money, resources, manpower and will to do limited things. It was a concept that then President Jimmy Carter came to symbolize. However, in his inauguration speech in January of 1981 President Ronald Reagan reminded America and its people that we were “too great a nation to limit ourselves to small dreams.” The wide response to Speaker Gingrich's proposal begs the question; what kind of a nation are we now?

Looking around it could easily be concluded that much of the American spirit that Ronald Reagan sought to awaken has once again grown lethargic. Have we as a people gone from explorers to Xbox addicted couch potatoes? Rather than gazing toward the stars with a desire to go there, are we simply more content to stumble through life myopically fixated on our smart phones endlessly texting pointless dribble? Indeed we live in a time when so many Americans can name every character on the TV series "The Jersey Shore" yet cannot name a single individual on board the international space station. The term “an era of limits” comes to mind.

So, was Newt’s Moon proposal completely outlandish? Was it, as some in the media have called it, "delusional?" Do we really absolutely not have the money to pursue such program? Or, did the speaker, who is a self-proclaimed and admitted "space-buff," simply cast pearls before couch potatoes?

Of course, if we want to be even further discouraged about the future of our nation's space program we need look only as far as Newt Gingrich's opponent’s rebuttal to the speakers moon base proposal. Mitt Romney's canned answer to Newt's moon challenge is as follows: “I believe the right mission for NASA should be determined by a president together with a collection of people from those different areas: from NASA, from the Air Force space program, from our leading universities, and from commercial enterprises. Bring them together, discuss a wide range of options for NASA, and then have NASA not just funded by the federal government, but also by commercial enterprises, have some of the research done in our universities, let’s have a collaborative effort with business, with government, with the military, as well as with their educational institutions, have a mission that once again excites our young people about the potential of space and the commercial potential will pay for itself down the road.”

Excuse me?!

Isn't that exactly what Barack Obama did with the Augustine commission? Apparently in constructing his plan forward for America's space program Gov. Romney and his entire staff overlooked the far-reaching efforts of the Augustine commission where people from different areas: from NASA, from our leading universities and from commercial enterprises- were brought together, studied the problems and offered a series of "options" and then turn their findings over to the Obama administration. The president's people then took the exhaustive study and, in the words of famed NASA flight director and senior manager Wayne Hale, "made hash out of it."

Now candidate Romney is apparently proposing that our nation spend more time and money to cover the same old ground that president Obama already dragged our space effort down. Aside from showing a complete and absolute lack of common knowledge of the current state of affairs in the United States space program, Gov. Romney's proposal offers little in the way of confidence that his administration would be able to recapture America's dominance in human spaceflight.

Likewise, candidates Rick Santorum and Ron Paul appear to have no plan at all for our space program other than to mock Gingrich’s proposal and chuckle uncomfortably as if they had just been asked to explain orbital mechanics in public. Clearly, neither of the two, or their staffs for that matter, have anything other than a remedial concept of human spaceflight. Ron Paul once stated his non-interest in the space program by quipping that “…space travel isn't in the Constitution.”

Of course, Speaker Gingrich's proposal for a moon base to that crowd of Space Coast voters didn't do him a lot of good in his attempt to win the Florida primary. In fact if he were attempting to energize Florida voters he would've probably done better to propose federally mandated senior citizens lanes on all US interstate highways and a federally mandated 15% senior citizens discount on all US airlines. Such a hallow promise may have gotten more of the attention of many of Florida’s voters. Thus, we can conclude that this presidential race likely have little to do with the future of United States human spaceflight. In fact other issues which loom in importance yet have a far shorter reach in the advancement of human civilization- such as which candidate made which gaff in which debate- will likely decide the outcome of the election. This article, however, is not intended to show that one candidate would make a better overall president of another candidate. Rather, is intended as a mirror for us to use to examine where we are and what are our priorities at this moment are. Frankly, I would just find it uplifting to have a candidate simply step forward and say to the American people, “We are too great a nation to limit ourselves to small dreams,” and not be mocked, lampooned and shunned for doing so.

The bottom line appears to be that no matter who wins the presidency in 2012 the outlook for NASA’s human spaceflight program appears to be pretty bleak. If Ron Paul wins, the United States space program will simply be erased. If Rick Santorum wins, the direction will be that we have “better things to do with our money right now.” i.e. an era of limits. If Mitt Romney wins we will have “ObamaSpace light.” If Newt Gingrich wins, any effort to advance his challenge to return to the moon will be murdered in the liberal main-stream media. And we have already seen the “de-development” of the Obama administration as applied to NASA- one can only imagine the nightmare of a second term where he will have nothing to lose. So, in November we must all do our duty and vote. If you vote spaceflight, however, be ready to be disappointed.

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