US Republican presidential candidate Newt Gingrich on Wednesday, January 25, called for the United States to expand its space programme. In particular, he stated that the US would have a permanent base on the moon by the end of his putative second term, ie January 2021. This echoed former president George W. Bush’s goal of returning Americans to the moon by 2020 – a plan that was cancelled by President Barack Obama as part of efforts to reduce America’s budget deficit.
Gingrich’s remarks came in a speech he made while campaigning in Florida, from which the US used to launch the space shuttle, prior to its retirement last year. Gingrich has long had an interest in space exploration, and he emphasised that an enhanced space programme would bring substantial technological benefits. He compared the space programme to efforts to build a transcontinental railway across the US in the 1800s, or the early developments of airlines in the 1930s. He added that it was in America’s interests to acquire so much space experience that China and Russia would never come close to matching it. On this front, Gingrich happily accepted the charge that he was being ‘grandiose’, and that being ‘grandiose’ is ‘American’.
Gingrich’s speech was dramatic, but it is hard to see how an enhanced space programme or lunar base will be a priority for Americans in 2012 or for some time beyond this. Although US economic growth accelerated to an annualised rate of 2.8% in Q4 2011, up from 1.8% in Q3 2011, unemployment remains well above 8%, and the budget deficit and debt burden remain painfully high. It is difficult to see the US channelling substantially more money into the heavens, when there are so many problems on earth.
Nevertheless, Gingrich’s speech raised the possibility of a renewed space race, or more specifically, a race for the moon. At the end of last year, China also announced an ambitious five-year programme for enhanced space exploration that would include more manned spaceflights, and an eventual moon mission. Given that China’s space programme is run by its military – unlike in the US, where there are separate military and civilian space programmes – Washington fears that Beijing could be moving to challenge its dominance in space – something that is crucial for broader US military superiority on earth.
Meanwhile, Russia is not sitting still. Russia, too, announced in January that there should be a permanent moon base – although rather than being a solo effort, the Russian space agency said that it would seek to boost cooperation with the United States’ NASA and the European Space Agency (ESA).
Going forward, it is difficult to tell how much of all this is rhetoric, and how much is sincere. The costs of space exploration are substantial, meaning that the issue will not be a high priority for voters in the US, Europe, and Russia. In addition, China’s economy is at risk of a ‘hard landing’ in 2012 or thereafter, which, if followed by a period of substantially slower growth, could stunt its space ambitions.
Nonetheless, precisely because of its military applications, we would expect the world’s major powers to enhance space capabilities over the coming decade (See our blog post of September 25, 2008, for further background). There is also the prestige factor – which is why India and Japan will maintain space programmes.