On Newt Gingrich on the Moon

Last week, Republican presidential hopeful Newt Gingrich made a bold claim: “By the end of my second term [2020], we will have the first permanent base on the Moon and it will be American.” On the surface, it’s an intriguing and even exciting prospect to space enthusiasts. A base on the Moon would extend human presence in the Solar System and act as a stepping stone on the way to Mars. Or, it could bankrupt NASA and prove to be little more than an ill-thought out, dead-end program. (Gingrich proposed a lunar base by 2020 in Florida on January 25, 2012.)

On May 25, 1961, twenty days after Alan Shepard became the first American in space, Kennedy urged the nation to commit itself, “before this decade is out, to landing a man on the Moon and returning him safely to the Earth.” Lucky for Kennedy — but only as far as space is concerned — the Cold War was escalating and space was a fertile battlefield. By choosing the Moon, he picked a finish line neither nation could reach at the time. Each had a fair shot at winning the race, and technological dominance was the prize. (Kennedy in 1961.)

But the Cold War was more than just a backdrop. It gave the American people a reason to support a manned spaceflight program with such a lofty goal. The climate was perfect in the 1960s to undertake a moonshot. The same can’t be said of modern day America.

The Centre for Strategic and International Studies looked into the cost of a four-man lunar base and start-up colony. Published in 2009, the report determined that construction of a lunar base would cost around $35 billion; once built, it would cost $7.5 billion every year for operation and maintenance. There’s a little wiggle room in this figure. The operational cost would go down if oxygen and hydrogen could be mined for use directly on the Moon.

The cost of a lunar base soars with the inclusion of supporting technologies like rockets to reach the Moon and vehicles to transport materials and men to its surface. NASA’s Space Launch System (SLS), the rocket that promise to surpass the capability of the Saturn V, is scheduled to make its first launch sometime in 2017. The Orion Multipurpose Crew Vehicle is following a similar timeline; it should be ready for unmanned testing by 2017. A manned mission with Orion launched on an SLS rocket is unlikely before 2021, and the total cost of the combined programs is estimated to run between $29 and $38 billion. (An artist’s concept of the SLS rocket.)

So the total cost of the first lunar base could be in the area of $78 billion. But when you add the cost of research and development of the technology behind the lunar colony, the cost is likely to spiral into hundreds of billions of dollars. As a reference point, every piece of the Apollo program came together for about $170 billion by today’s standards.

But Gingrich doesn’t want a four-man startup colony; he wants a colony of 13,000 Americans living and working on the Moon, enough citizens to petition for state status.

Building a lunar base — four-man or 13,000-man — would devastate NASA. It would take a huge fraction of the agency’s budget, which is already stretched, and effectively kill all science initiatives, like rovers on Mars, interplanetary probes, and orbiting telescopes. (An artist’s concept of a lunar base.)

So, to lessen the financial burden on NASA’s shoulders, Gingrich proposes heavy involvement from the private sector. X-Prize style programs would encourage entrepreneurs to solve the problems of getting to and landing on the Moon. But where would this money come from — NASA couldn’t foot this bill, and the market would need to recover really quickly and spectacularly for private companies to afford the resources to solve these technological challenges alone.

Gingrich has called on the private sector for near Earth orbital spaceflight as well — perhaps to free up NASA for this Moon base. As president, his secondary goal in space would be to increase commercial, tourist, and manufacturing activity in space, an industry explosion he hopes will mimic the developments in aviation in the 1930s. But the private sector is already taking the lead in this realm with companies like SpaceX working to launch to the International Space Station. It’s a trend likely to continue whether or not Gingrich moves into the White House. (Orion, NASA’s next manned spacecraft.)

The call for private spaceflight was a stronger point in Gingrich’s speech, but it was tainted by his qualification of why we need the ingenuity of our space faring citizens. “It is in our interest,” he said, “ to acquire so much experience in space that we clearly have a capacity that the Chinese and the Russians will never come anywhere close to matching.” That statement evoked cheers from the crowd and sent shivers down my spine. The way forward is cooperation in space, not competition; the research station at the South Pole should be our model.

Presidential hopefuls are notorious for making bold and unfulfillable promises that inspire citizens and sway voters. His speech last week was made in Florida, a state where space is the local business. The grand lunar ideas are unlikely to strike a chord with voters in Idaho or Wisconsin. It’s a big idea, but that doesn’t make it a good idea. There’s a big difference. (An artist’s concept of men exploring Mars.)

Kennedy’s big idea was a good one, though I’m sure there’s no shortage of people who would disagree. Subsequent presidents have tried to have their own Kennedy-Moon moment, making speeches and promises to inspire the nation to unite in support of a grand gesture.

In 1989, President George Bush Sr. challenged the nation to undertake a long-range program to land men on Mars. The report on the proposal, the “90-day study,” returned a figure of $500 billion for the program. It was a staggering figure, even if it was spread over 20 or 30 years. President George Bush Jr. followed in his father’s footsteps in 2004. He called for NASA to establish a permanent settlement on the Moon before moving on the Mars. (An artist’s concept of a greenhouse on Mars — a glimpse of our first colony?)

In these instances, part of the problem was the time frame for such an undertaking. Reaching the Moon was feasible when Kennedy set his goal — if it hadn’t been he would probably have set a different goal. The time frame is certainly one of Gingrich’s problems, but there’s one more central piece of the puzzle that’s missing in this audacious proposal: What’s the point?

Apollo was awesome, but it wasn’t sustainable. People lost interest after Apollo 11 and got nervous after Apollo 13. NASA’s budget was slashed. Apollos 18-20 were cancelled. The amazing and exciting plans that made up the Apollo Application Program were never realized save the short-lived Skylab program. We were left with the Shuttle, which failed to deliver on its promises. (Skylab in orbit.)

Anything this grand and long term in space has to be undertaken with more than political agenda at its root. It needs to have some return on investment and long-term payoff in more than just prestige. And it needs to not be tied up with the American election cycle.

But who knows. Maybe somehow Gingrich will win and the lunar base proposal will go through and he’s get his wish: to see an American flag waving in the magic space wind on the Moon.

Suggested Reading

Gingrich’s speech in Florida

Neil deGrasse Tyson on Gingrich on the Moon


23 thoughts on “On Newt Gingrich on the Moon

  1. It seems to me that the history of US aviation could be hugely instructive here. The obvious historical note is that, while there certainly were high-value aviation prizes, and they did establish important capabilities, the bulk of the grunt-work in building a working aviation economy was done by old-fashioned contracts serving various markets, and the government was a conspicuous partner — the military and the Post Office (though air mail subsidies) were the first customers for air transportation, and NACA and NASA served important research and standard-setting roles. The military is still very important to the aviation economy, as attested to by Boeing’s efforts to obtain a new tanker contract. I’m not enough of a history expert to know if this kind of government involvement was actually necessary, but it certainly was present.

    The other obvious item that springs to mind is that there is already a significant market for commercial space flight. The people who put up communications satellites do so in a competitive marketplace of launchers, satellite builders, and telecom operators. The way some people talk about it, you’d think all space operations from Sputnik on were government-operated exercises in pointless grandstanding. A cynic might say that this is actually true of *manned* spaceflight, but even that cynic has to admit that for-profit commercial space operations have been going on for decades. Somebody should ask *those* guys (the commercial space guys, not the cynics) why they’re not already doing space-based manufacturing. I don’t know the answer, but I’d bet a dollar that “we never thought of that” isn’t it.

  2. Sadly I believe its all just rhetoric.
    There is no Cold War threat or economic incentive for Congress to approve it.

    But it is possible for a company like SpaceX to take advantage of the proposal
    and turn that political spin into something more practical. Especially since
    Elon Musk seems determined to get his spacecraft onto the Moon for more
    altruistic reasons.

    If NASA just offers SpaceX a few billion to help it get to the moon then naturally they will accept it and Newt can claim his grand vision of a moon base was realised.

  3. Colbert had some typically witty takes on the Gingrich’s moon base: 1. If it takes any time at all for the moon base to become self-sufficient, we’ll have to supply the residents with water and food; and Gingrich has made how he feels about gov’t food pretty clear. 2. He wants to get manufacturing going on the moon? “Sorry, Ohio!”

    I’ll be the first to concede how cool a moon base would be–I would even go so far as to say that the concept makes Airplane II a better film than Airplane–but coming from the mouth of a “small government,” “fiscal conservative” it comes off as worse than frivolous. It comes off as an insult to all the places with better manufacturing atmospheres (and, you know, atmosphere) that have been told to pull themselves up by their own bootstraps and build private prisons.

    On the other hand, I should admit that I loathe Gingrich on such a visceral level and to such an irrational degree that I may be incapable of seeing the utility of any of his ideas. It’s a personal failing more than a political one, I know.

  4. Whilst applauding the obvious enthusiasm, I do question quite a lot of his outline. Especially the unilateralism. “…and it will be American!” (Applause.) One lesson from history: the ISS. Which would never have been built as the American “SS Freedom.” Once a project is internationalised it has a better chance of surviving the flip flopping of Presidents and Congress.
    Then there is the OST…

    But the practicalities of a Moon Base are dubious. Especially since the Moon is so close that tele-operated robotics would do for most tasks. As indeed Mars surface operations from the safety of Phobos. The latter being ~30% better as a base than Mars surface with it’s own mass and that of Mars screening out the worst GCRs. Plus we might find fuel (water.) Plus we might find a Martian Orbital space facility. (As indicated in various Heinlein novels:)
    If I were a Republican candidate, I would be pushing for Nautilus X, cis and then trans lunar ops. and a human tended base at Lagrange 1. Call it: “Midway!” High ground etc…

  5. Private companies are not taking the lead in U.S. space transportation. Much like Newt’s silly speech, the likes of which we have heard again and again from Republicans trying to get elected, this is hyperbolic rhetoric. It will be a long time before we can rely on SpaceX to do more than produce pretty advertisements depicting unrealistic Mars missions and criticize NASA while taking NASA subsidies. One cheese launch does not a reliable and proven space transportation system make. Promises are not the same as reality. Wishful thinking is no basis for a space program.

    1. We get it, you don’t like SpaceX and its results. But as you say, such wishful thinking gets no one anywhere.

      SpaceX has racked up much more than one launch. And both SpaceX’s unrealistic Mars missions have support. (“Red Dragon” by NASA: seems doable, see the released presentations; colonization by Musk’s own purse.)

    2. “One cheese launch…”. “…do more than produce pretty advertisements”. Clearly you have a bias against SpaceX, so its hard to take your comments seriously.

      NASA does plenty of wishful thinking itself. I’d say any space program that didn’t have some degree of wishful thinking isn’t going to go very far. What matters is if they make good on their principle goals.

      Sure its still early days for SpaceX but there is nothing to suggest that they are all talk and no action, quite the contrary. NASA had plenty of naysayers in its early days too.

  6. Amy

    I would be looking at this with your historian’s hat on. Consider over the previous hundreds or thousands of years that generally only strong, wealthy, powerful societies were in a position to mount great explorations. As each of those societies went into inevitable decline, so too did their ability to explore new frontiers. Rome, China, Portugal, Spain, Belgium, U.K….. the list goes on and on of once-great powers conducting great explorations and, with time, no longer being able to support such things.

    The United States is clearly in decline, and has probably been so since the early 1970’s. In the 70’s, 80’s, and perhaps the early 90’s it was still moving forward on inertia. That has certainly stopped now, and combined with the rise of new global powers will likely ensure that it will not return to the position that it held from 1945 to 1975.

    In additional to it’s gravely weakened financial situation, the largest single crisis in America is a lack of national will and consensus on almost any matter of national importance. The national legislative system is in near paralysis, society is deeply divided, and there seems to be no agreed-upon vision for the nation’s future. All of these things are hallmarks of a society in a downward spiral.

    And this is why there will not be an American base on the moon, Mars, or anywhere else. Even if Gingrich became president, America simply could not do it. I realize that some will tout the power of the American private sector to save the day, but one must realize that the private sector’s primary client now and for the foreseeable future will be… the U.S. federal government.

    1. “only strong, wealthy, powerful societies were in a position to mount great explorations”

      Like Polynesians colonizing the Pacific? Or Stone Age humans colonizing most of the planet?

      Oh, *great* explorations. True, those take concentrated wealth; of course, the US is far wealthier than any previous such, and no so much getting poorer as losing our lead over other current societies, which shouldn’t be relevant.

      But then, “exploration” is entirely the wrong concept. We have telescopes and probes; we have explored and in fact are continuing to explore. It’s a golden age of space exploration, finding exoplanets and having like two dozen probes running around the solar system, and going to new places. Newt isn’t talking about exploration, but colonization, for which one needs not so much “great powerful society” as “profit”. Putting humans in space has no profit at the moment, and deeper pockets just means more money to throw away. Only strong, wealthy, powerful societies can ruin themselves in imperial overreach, too.

      And Rome was never concerned about exploring new frontiers, they were concerned with conquering their neighbors, and they stopped at the limits of geography and technology as much as anything else, having conquered all the land amenable to their form of agriculture. Boundaries: Scotland, German forests, the Sahara, arid eastern lands also full of people who could fight back… Much the same is true of China, bounded by frozen steppe, mountains, or jungle.

      And, Belgium, what?

  7. Incidentally, Urban Garlic’s second paragraph is spot on, as is brobof’s. The traditional vision of spaceflight doesn’t work anymore. That Newt is pushing an outdated vision in this area may say something about his other policies. The Decadal Planning Team, funded directly by Clinton’s OMB in 1999-2001, tried to work up an alternative vision, I think with the idea that Pres. Gore would make it happen in his two terms. Bush paid it lip service in 1/04 (start of an election year – the favorite GOP time to announce a space initiative), then stood by as Mike Griffin turned back the clock, with predictable results. That’s a tale that’s hardly been told – everything I’ve read on it so far gets it mostly wrong.

  8. To mention JFK and newt in the same article is sacrilegious! Besides…when, in recent times, have ANY politician’s grandiose claims come to fruition?!?? I’d love to see it, myself, but being unemployed now for 11 months, I would much rather see a paycheck than some blowhard stumping for his own fantasy agenda.

  9. TL & Mark: I don’t know whether using my critical thinking faculties constitutes bias. I’m not the sort to let my deep yearnings shut off my brain. The small start-up companies like SpaceX started out touting their independence from NASA. Now they survive on NASA material support and subsidies. Yet they still criticize NASA regularly. NASA, which has launched spacecraft to all the planets in the Solar System and many lesser bodies, put humans on the moon, worked closely for 20 years now with the Russians to build a space station – all major accomplishments. None of it is wishful thinking. It shows plainly what we can do as a country when we decide we should.

    Perhaps you can provide facts to back up your assertions. “SpaceX has done much more than one launch” – was all this activity done in secret? “NASA supports the SpaceX Mars plan” – can you cite something I can see that supports this notion? And then you criticize NASA, as if that somehow supports your case that the start-ups can do anything meaningful.

    That’s the problem. NASA is a kick-ass organization, whether you get it or not. Even if it weren’t, it is what we have to work with. We need to apply our energy to making sure it succeeds, not dreaming about some ill-conceived “private” space effort. The start-ups can only launch cheese and make science fiction films when they receive subsidies from NASA – subsidies which could be spent on much more meaningful NASA activities. The start-ups are not going to approach what NASA can do. In fact, I would bet you a wheel of cheese that they will be gone inside of a decade, because they don’t have pockets deep enough to withstand the failures they inevitably will face. We simply are not at the point where a start-up space company can realistically make a contribution. We may never be.


    1. “SpaceX … Now they survive on NASA material support and subsidies”

      That is a false statement. It suggests that SpaceX wouldn’t be able to
      survive without NASA’s subsidies. There is no proof of that.

      If NASA is handing out money, any company would be stupid not
      to take whats offered and it certainly doesn’t signify that they
      couldn’t survive without it.
      By the same token someone who is biased against NASA could argue that
      NASA wouldn’t survive without government support.
      But its a pointless argument. That fact is they do survive.

      What you fail to realize is that NASA’s budget is effectively a subsidy
      from the government and thus any subsidies SpaceX gets is really
      a from the government not NASA, and if the government ever
      realises that it is more economical to cut out the middle man (NASA)
      then unfortunately NASA will be the one who can’t survive!

      The same with your comments about SpaceX criticising NASA.
      So what! In industry companies criticize each other all the time
      but it bears no relevance on whether they are competent or not.
      Its not as if NASA is above criticism unless you think NASA is perfect and holier than thou?

      Obviously criticism is a good thing and can lead to healthy debate if your
      open minded about it. Why shouldn’t they criticise NASA?
      NASA has plenty of internal criticism, its a good thing.

      NASA does plenty of wishful thinking, like planning moon bases
      decades ago. NASA has done plenty of “pretty advertisements”
      of Manned landings on Mars etc but thats OK because wishful
      thinking leads to planning and research to see if its feasable.
      NASA or SpaceX may never be able to afford such possibilities
      but if NASA makes use of wishful thinking why not SpaceX?

      The Falcon rocket may still be a little green at this stage but there
      is no doubt that it is already a major accomplishment and proves that
      SpaceX is not merely about wishful thinking.

      I bet you a DVD of the last Space Shuttle launch
      that NASA will be gone inside of a decade 🙂

  10. Mark: Gibberish. I really can’t rebut what you write, any more than I could rebut it if you wrote “NASA is a big jam donut.” It’s just not based in reality, and it seems predicated on logical fallacy.

    Try to look at this dispassionately. SpaceX is not NASA. It relies on NASA material support and funding. It is a wanna-be NASA contractor like all the rest. If NASA goes down, then SpaceX and its ilk will have no sugar daddy. They will go down, too. To wish that NASA should be gone in a decade is to wish for an end to U.S. spaceflight. That is precisely the problem I have with many “newspace” fans. They need to think it all through. They either can’t, or won’t. DSFP

    1. That’s funny David. From my point of view, I think it is you
      who needs to “try to look at this dispassionately”.

      Instead of engaging in the debate you have simply
      dismissed my points as “logical fallacy” without
      explaining what you mean?
      That is the easy way out.
      I believe my point of view is very rational. I don’t
      wish for the end of NASA. My last remarks where
      meant as humorous, hence the smiley.

      My main points are that NASA seems in decline.
      SpaceX is rising.
      NASA lovers find that scary.
      Governments have a history of turning white elephants
      like NASA over to private enterprise.

      SpaceX can survive without NASA because there is still
      money to be made purely in the satellite launch market.
      And if NASA doesn’t survive there may still be
      subsidies for SpaceX directly from the government.

      It will be a very sad day when NASA no longer exists
      because it will probably mean the end of purely scientific
      space exploration but like it or love it that is the direction
      the government is inching closer and closer to.

    2. I’m not sure where you come up with your line that SpaceX “relies on NASA material support and funding”. SpaceX has a fairly long manifest of flights, listed at http://www.spacex.com/launch_manifest.php, and a history of developing, testing and delivering cost effective launch services to its customers, of which NASA is one. They have developed two and a half launch vehicles (Falcon Heavy hasn’t flown but a majority of its tardware and technology has) in ten years for under a billion dollars. What new launch vehicles has NASA developed and flown in the last ten years? Or the last thirty for that matter.

      NASA’s plan for returning to the Moon, the SLS (Superfluous Launch System – to put it charitably), is utterly ridiculous. Here’s an email I wrote Oct 30th, 2011 for the Space Frontier Foundation’s Advocates List:

      Just for the record … let’s review and compare:


      An unofficial NASA document estimates the cost of the program through 2025 will total at least $41B for four 70 metric ton launches (1 unmanned in 2017, 3 manned starting in 2021).

      therefore . . .

      4 x 70,000 kg = 280,000 kg

      $41,000,000,000 / 280,000 kg =  $146,428.57 / kg


      On the other hand, Falcon Heavy claims to carry 53,000 kg / flight, at a cost of $80,000,000 – $125,000,000 per flight, therefore . . .

      280,000 / 53,000 = 5.28 FH flights so they can beat SLS with 6 launches.

      Costs? Well … even if we assume that SpaceX charges they stated max price, 

      6 x $125,000,000 = $750,000,000 !

      So FH can carry more cargo to LEO for 3/4 of a Billion than SLS can for $41 billion!

      Or, to put it another way, if NASA used the $41 billion to buy FH flights for 14 years, even at the maximum cost, 

      $41,000,000,000 / $125,000,000 = 328 flights (or about a flight every 2 weeks), carrying a total of

      328 * 53,000 kg = 17,384,000 kg to LEO

      So SpaceX could carry 17,384,000 kg for the same money as SLS could carry 280,000 kg, or 62.0857 times the capacity!

      And if NASA were to order a Falcon Heavy launch every two weeks for 14 years, I’m sure even Elon would be willing to give them the lower $80,000,000 pricing. Heck, that’s not much over what NASA is paying the Soviets Russians to launch a single <200 lb astronaut! 

      At $80,000,000 per flight, SLS's $41,000,000,000 would buy 512.5 Falcon Heavy flights over 14 years (one every 10 days) for a total capacity of 27,162,500 kg to LEO. That's nearly TWO ORDERS OF MAGNITUDE more payload!! THAT would make us a space-faring nation!

      Any way you slice it, SLS is a Bad Deal … Unless you're from the electoral district of MSFC.

  11. Amy, I like the tone of your article. It certainly echoes what I think. The only way to go forward in space exploration is cooperation. Neither the moon, nor any planet or space itself is U.S. property, so they better work together with the rest of the world. I feel that this is the only way the U.S. are able to get the best out of their knowledge and technology.
    NASA used to be an organisation which was nimble and innovative. Nowadays it almost feels as if NASA is just a big top-heavy bureaucratic colossus without any sense of what actually is happening. Promising projects get cancelled, not so promising projects get endorsed. I often get the feeling NASA has lost its way a bit. Gingrich isn’t really helping this tendency by suggesting this ridiculous moon base being made in his second term. I am no American so I want to stay out of any political debate concerning the elections but claims as made by this candidate made me frown and sigh with frustration.
    Even Kennedy in 1961 was aiming for more cooperation between the Soviet Union and America, to go to the moon together. Something he quickly was talked out of. (William Burrows’ “This New Ocean”, pg. 320) It might not have been the right moment for it but it only shows the idea of getting the work in space done together as people of Earth is not exactly new. Kennedy’s reasons were different, more of a way to keep the Cold War form escalating, perhaps even to try and create an détente in the conflict. Now it would be much more an economic reason.
    Projects like space stations and moon bases, even manned journeys to Mars should be a global effort, not just done by the Russians, Chinese, Americans or Europeans. When leaving this planet, we should stop being nationalities and just become humans from Earth.

  12. Actually, Gingrich didn’t say he wanted a 13,000 person colony by 2020, he said that if a lunar colony ever grew to 13,000, then he would advocate admitting it to the union as a State. He only advocated a Moon Base by 2020.

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