Thursday, February 2, 2012

Newt’s Rockets


You’d think that, as a lifelong spaceflight enthusiast and shameless space geek, I’d be thrilled by Newt Gingrich’s well publicized assertion that under his presidency the United States would erect a permanent lunar colony by the end of the decade. You’d think that I’d applaud this plan as the sort of decisive, visionary, audacious goal that space science needs.

But far from that – I see it as proof that Newt Gingrich simply cannot be our next president.

Now I don’t know much about Newt or his politics beyond the fact that he’s had a whole series of marriage-affair-divorce cycles and that a lot of his supporters scare the crap out of me. For the most part, I’d left the man alone, but now he's messing with My Thing. Honestly, I wish I could say that My Thing was something like personal liberties or reproductive freedom or equitable taxation or international trade balances. But while I’ve got opinions in each of those areas, they aren’t where my passion lies. My passion lies with space.

Newt's absurd boasting about lunar colonies shows him to be a man not just out of touch with the fiscal and social aspects of spaceflight but also utterly unaware of the realities of engineering. It shows him to be a man who believes that he can wield power by decree, without understanding the implications, limits, or sources of that power. And it risks doing irreparable damage (and indeed may already have done irreparable damage) to this country’s tenuous willingness to spend any effort at all trying to understand our universe.

First things first. Rocketry is hard.

I don’t take campaign promises literally – if a politician says “if you elect me, I will balance the budget,” what I'll actually hear is “if you elect me, and my opponents don’t utterly stonewall my efforts to do so and there isn’t some sort of unforeseen crisis that completely derails all my plans, I will balance the budget.” So of course I evaluate Newt’s lunar colony claims with that caveat in place.

Suppose that congress and the American public rally around Newt’s lunar colony idea and suppose Newt goes Ron Paul on a few federal agencies and diverts all their funding towards getting a permanent settlement on the moon.

Public and political will and lots of cash can only go so far towards solving the considerable challenge of designing, building, and testing a launch vehicle able to get a creditable payload into cislunar space. Then of designing, building, and testing some sort of landing system that can get meaningful amounts of cargo and quantities of people down to the lunar surface and keeping them supplied with the raw materials necessary for surviving until, presumably, the lunar hydroponics come up to speed. There is also the matter of the actual domes or pods or lunar-concrete shelters or whatever that this colony would be built out of. I could keep going, but you get the idea.

It takes a lot of work to establish an outpost in an environment that is for all practical purposes instantly fatal. And it doesn’t take long with a slide rule or calculator to run the mass fraction numbers and realize that putting that kind of mass on the lunar surface would require simply enormous, regular launches at a rate that the world has never seen.

And no, it just aint’ going to happen, not in eight years.

And that leads to point two. It is one thing to make an bold and daring claim or promise. But to take a flying leap into the impossible, a blind assertion that you will accomplish something when that thing is so plainly beyond our scope, is indicative of a decision maker who is not thinking things through, is not aware of the means by which things are accomplished and the costs which must be paid to accomplish them.

This is the one that really worries me, considering that this man is striving to be the next president of our country. Presidents get to kick off a lot of exciting projects with grand claims. They get to promise reconstructions, liberations, containments, victories, inclusions, exclusions, reinventions. They get to promise good things and terrible things. And, inevitably, they rely on others to bring these promises to fruition. So be it, that’s what a leader does, inspire or order or motivate (or all three).

But leadership requires an awareness of what can and can’t be done and what challenges and costs lie ahead. I don’t expect a president to be an expert on aerospace engineering, but I do expect a president to have a reasonable grasp on reality and to consult with someone who is an expert. But tossing off a promise that you’ll build a moon colony shows, to me, a man who views leadership as the issuance of decrees from on high, decrees that will simply be taken care of and will simply be achieved.

Finally, and most sadly, Newt’s rash and outlandish proposition risks making spaceflight a laughing stock, the topic of late-night jokes and eye rolling disbelief. As it is, those of us who believe in the exploration of our universe as a profound and serious calling, a noble goal for humanity to set itself, must contend with ignorance, parochialism, selfishness, short-sightedness, and a certain depressing lack of imagination…not to mention countless other entirely deserving projects out there crying out for time, money, and attention. So when I see a presumably serious advocate of space exploration risk doing so much harm to the whole enterprise, I have only one thing to say: Thanks Newt, but with friends like you, space exploration hardly needs enemies.

But really this is about the presidency. I don’t see campaigns or campaign promises as literal things, I see them as auditions, opportunities to understand a candidate’s decision making process. The world is an evolving and dynamic place, politics involves the intersection of multiple groups, diverse opinions, harsh realities, and unforeseen complications. And so I want to understand how a candidate is going to react to those unknowns, what sorts of decisions they will make and compromises they will seek, how they will cope with areas outside their expertise, for no politician can be a master of everything.

Well, irrespective of any other issues of character, politics, history, or policies, Newt has now given me enough information to see that he's failed this audition.

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