Newt's Space Comments and the Military-Industrial Complex
While campaigning in Florida, Republican presidential hopeful Newt Gingrich has been a vocal proponent of space exploration, to the point of promising a permanent American moon base by the end of his second term. Here is one article describring what he's been doing.
I'm not one of those people who thinks we cannot have space exploration because we have poor people at home, home being our own nation or other countries on Earth. There are enough places where there's wasteful spending already to cut to free up money for space-related stuff without reducing funds for things like literacy, AIDS prevention, etc. Farm subsidies come to mind, while the government could take the "weed is illegal but enforcing marijuana laws are not a priority" route that wouldn't save as much as full-blown legalizing it would but would cut some costs.
However, the U.S. financial situation is so dire with the debt and deficit being as huge as they are that the amount of spending needed to build a lunar colony, even a small one like the research stations in Antarctica, would be massively unjustified. The American Colonies weren't founded "just because," but for economic or ideological reasons. The Puritan colonies in the north were founded by people who wanted to create a godly society far away from the Church of England, Georgia to give debtors a new start, Maryland as a refuge for persecuted Catholics, South Carolina as a slave-based agrarian center, the French colonies in Canada to buy furs from the Indians, etc..
Much has been made of the Moon as a possible source for He3 to feed fusion reactors (the film Moon depicts an oil-rig-like colony mining He3 for this purpose), but we don't have that type of fusion yet and might not for quite while. Viable fusion always seems to be 40-50 years away and although I'm an optimist where scientific progress is concerned, one must be realistic. Fusion occurs in nature in the stars, but that doesn't mean it would be easy or cheap to do here on Earth.
And I'm not aware of any religious or cultural groups that want to establish their own ideal society far away from everyone else who've got the scientific training and resources needed to actually do it. Let's remember how dangerous this will be, especially given the recent laming of the American space program. One thing goes wrong in an attempt to establish a new Zion on the Moon (say a meteor smashes the greenhouse or the cosmic-ray shielding isn't thick enough) and the people back on Earth will be watching everyone up there die and be unable to do anything about it.
So not right now, Newt, however awesome it would be to do it.
However, thinking about the whole "space versus the poor" scenario has got me thinking. Many areas in the United States are poor due to industrial decline. The decline of the automobile industry is one of the reasons why Detroit is so awful. Georgia's political representatives have pushed for continued production of the F-22 fighter, despite us already having nearly 200 of them and very little that can face us in the skies, due to Lockheed being a major employer in my neck of the woods.
Some more left-wing people have claimed the U.S. government uses military spending as a kind of Keynesianism, to create jobs and keep the economy going. I admit being ideologically prejudiced against that kind of argument (it smacks of the U.S. being unable to sustain itself without an artificially-large war machine and international responsibilities to justify it), but given the defense of the F-22 program by Georgian politicians, I really can't argue against that being true in at least some cases.
So here's a thought for the long run. Instead of a military-industrial complex that with the defeat of fascism and Communism is no longer as necessary, how about orienting as much of it as possible to a space-industrial complex?
Lockheed, for example, was experimenting with a single-stage-to-orbit called the VentureStar that was canceled after running into some problems. If there was more demand for such technology, I imagine they wouldn't abandon it so easily. After all, it's (potentially) jobs and money that might not be so readily available if there are more defense cuts.
And then there's the space elevator, which would cause launch costs to drastically decline. If you're going to have space-Keynesianism instead of war-Keynesianism, this could lead to jobs in and around centers where materials research is conducted. The LiftPort Group, for example, managed a smaller-scale elevator test on Earth before deciding to focus on a lunar elevator for the time being. They're also engaged in other materials-science research that will bring immediate profits while allowing them to focus on their long-term goals.
Gingrich suggested prizes to provide incentives for private entities to work on this rather than simply increasing federal spending. This makes sense, given the financial constraints everyone is operating under these days and the slowness of many government agencies. The Ansari X Prize has shown promise. However, let's not forget that the Manhattan Project and the goodies that have emerged from the National Labs were government programs as well.