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Window of Opportunity
In 1984, Gingrich’s vision of space included lower-cost launch systems and a lunar base by 2000.

Reopening the Window of Opportunity

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Space made a cameo appearance again on the presidential campaign trail last week and, not surprisingly, it involved Newt Gingrich. On Tuesday, as 10 states held primaries and caucuses in an electoral confluence known as Super Tuesday, Gingrich took a quick trip from his Atlanta campaign headquarters (where he would return to celebrate a victory that night in the Georgia primary) to Alabama, a state that holds its primary the following Tuesday. The site for his one campaign rally there was the US Space and Rocket Center in Huntsville, a venue that all but guaranteed that Gingrich would mention space. And he did.

“I want to restate: America has a destiny in space, that’s who we are,” Gingrich said in his speech, which covered a range of topics that included space. “We are not backing off John F. Kennedy’s challenge and we are not going to go timidly into the night and let the Chinese dominate the future in space.”

Gingrich’s often-grandiose views on space generated criticism well before his now-infamous moonbase speech in January.

According to media accounts of his speech, Gingrich didn’t go into the same level of detail as his January speech in Florida, where he famously called for the creation of a permanent base on the Moon by 2020, a claim that generated a strong, a widely negative, reaction (see “Campaign lunacy” and “Campaign lunacy, revisited”, The Space Review, January 30 and February 13, 2012.) That negative, even derisive, reaction continues to shadow his campaign: his Huntsville speech generated headlines like “Newt Gingrich goes to space camp”, even though his speech was not at Space Camp itself. (Although, one must admit, there’s a certain appeal to the idea of putting politicians on a multi-axis trainer—a very different concept of “spin control”.)

However, Gingrich’s often-grandiose views on space generated criticism well before his now-infamous moonbase speech in January. When Gingrich surged in the polls in December, his past statements on space, including development of a lunar colony, were mentioned in a piece by New York Times columnist David Brooks, who used them as evidence that Gingrich supported big government endeavors antithetical to conservatism. Those examples were then used by a rival candidate, Mitt Romney, in his criticism of Gingrich. “He even talked about a series of mirrors that we could put in space that would light our highways at night,” Romney said of Gingrich’s statements. “I’ve got some better ideas for our resources.”

At that point in the campaign, Gingrich hadn’t mentioned lunar bases (and still hasn’t mentioned space mirrors.) Brooks and Romney got those ideas from a book written by Gingrich in 1984, Window of Opportunity. The book, subtitled “A Blueprint for the Future”, was just that: Gingich’s vision of the future of America on a variety of topics, from defense to welfare reform to, yes, space.

Window of Opportunity has long since fallen out of print, but used copies are readily available online (I purchased a copy last month through for a grand total of $4.41, including $3.99 in shipping and handling.) Written a decade before Gingrich would ascend to the position of Speaker of the House, the primary position cited in the book’s bio of Gingrich (and on the cover) is as chairman of the Congressional Space Caucus, which he co-founded. Space is also the first topic that Gingrich tackles after a lengthy introduction.

The philosophy that Gingrich espouses in the space chapter of the book might best be described as techno-optimism: a belief that there is a bright future for America if it grasps the opportunity presented by a vigorous new investment in spaceflight. He imagines an alternative history where, immediately after the Apollo 11 mission in 1969, the Nixon Administration leverages the excitement in space exploration created by that historic mission to push for “a bold, dramatic space program” that included a lunar base, as well as “tax and regulatory incentives” to encourage commercial use of space. “If we had developed at a reasonable pace from 1969, today we would have eight to twelve space shuttles, two manned space stations, and a permanently operating lunar base,” he concluded (emphasis in original).

Many of the themes in that chapter of the book can also be found in Gingrich’s present-day campaign rhetoric, from the desire to get the private sector more involved to a disdain for business-as-usual bureaucracy.

That didn’t happen in the 15 years between Apollo 11 and the publication of his book, but he remained optimistic that a similar future was in reach. Much of the chapter talks about the potential benefits of developing a space station (which President Reagan has just announced in 1984), including research and manufacturing. The then-new Space Shuttle, he foresaw, would be superseded by a second-generation system as early as the mid-1990s that reduced the cost of space access by an order of magnitude; a third-generation system would offer another factor of ten reduction in launch costs by 2020, enough to be “the DC-3 of space”. That would open up whole new markets, including space tourism, a topic still quite novel in 1984. It would also enhance American leadership in space, keeping the US ahead of the Soviet Union and far ahead of the then-emerging European and Japanese programs.

He outlined several steps necessary to achieve the vision he laid out, most notably increasing NASA’s budget to its peak 1965 level and keeping it there through at least 2000. Other steps included incentives for private investment in space, greater cooperation with allies and “Third World friends”, and even a lottery for seats on shuttle flights where all taxpayers would be eligible, a move designed to “tie the average American into the space program.”

That advice wasn’t heeded, and the vision he laid out didn’t come to pass, although even with the increased funding and other incentives there’s no guarantee it would have. Space projects have turned out to be a lot harder to carry out than what many of its advocates, like Gingrich, have asserted over the years. When Gingrich wrote Window of Opportunity, the space station Reagan had proposed had a price tag of $8 billion and a completion date of 1992; what became the ISS cost several times more and only in the last year can it be claimed to be completed. The first-generation Space Shuttle retired last year, but no second-generation model has replaced it. Instead, history is littered with the failures of past second-generation efforts, from the National Aerospace Plane to the X-33, with little present-day enthusiasm, at least in government, to try again.

Yet, many of the themes in that chapter of the book can also be found in Gingrich’s present-day campaign rhetoric, from the desire to get the private sector more involved to a disdain for business-as-usual bureaucracy. For example, the shuttle program, as he described it in the book, “was a process-oriented, bureaucratic, technocratic program which lacked the romance and adventure that might have created a new generation of engineers and space activists.”

Gingrich’s prediction of a lunar base by 2000 may have failed to come true, but he accurately foresaw the development of TurboTax.

And what about that talk of lunar colonies and space mirrors? Late in the chapter he proposes a “millennium project” designed to showcase everything from freedom to technological development: “a lunar research base for the whole free world” that would open by January 1, 2000. While initially a barebones facility, it would expand into a “real colony” with at least 100 people by 2010. The idea is not dissimilar to his lunar base proposal from January, although this time with a much tighter schedule. The base discussion in the chapter comes after he talks about some advanced concepts from a 1979 NASA study, which included the now-infamous space mirrors as well as space-based solar power and giant space telescopes, all of which, he argued, could be enabled by a “dynamic, well financed, worldwide” space program. “Had [Jimmy] Carter listened to these intellectuals, instead of harkening to the defeatists, he might have been re-elected,” Gingrich wrote. Well, maybe. (Another advanced concept mentioned in that passage was a “wrist radio system that would provide tracking capability for people and some limited communications capacity”. Take away the Dick Tracy-esque “wrist radio” language and you have something that sounds like today’s mobile phones, GPS receivers, and satellite tracking systems.)

It’s interesting to compare the chapter on space with the following chapter, on the “information explosion”. In it, he predicts a future where home computers will be easy to use and networked to provide instant access to information. In contrast to the overreach of the space chapter, his predictions here look almost tame in retrospect. For example, he predicts the creation of “an interactive computerized income tax package” that “would permit all citizens to access rules required for their taxes”. Gingrich’s prediction of a lunar base by 2000 may have failed to come true, but he accurately foresaw the development of TurboTax.

Gingrich, of course, is hardly the only person to make grandiose predictions about America’s future in space that failed to come true, but few others have also had access to the sometimes-harsh spotlight of a presidential campaign. For all those flawed predictions and unrealistic timelines, though, at least Gingrich is thinking about what the nation’s future in space should be. Two days after Gingrich spoke in Huntsville, another Republican presidential candidate, Rick Santorum, held a campaign rally at very same location. Unlike Gingrich, though, Santorum said virtually nothing about space, other than to acknowledge the history of the space program on display. “Just as an American, I just want to say thank you, Huntsville, thank you for the great work that you’ve done for our country,” he said, but made no promises or predictions—realistic or otherwise—about the nation’s future in space.