This morning's announcement that NASA wants to build a manned moon base by 2017 suggests Democrats and Republicans can agree about something big and expensive.
Earlier this year, the idea of an American moon base by 2020 emerged not from the Obama administration, but from then-Republican presidential nominee Newt Gingrich. Dismissed as crackpot grandstanding — Gingrich got a lot of that — the NewtBase became a semi-serious talking point during the primary campaign. It took off particularly when the Republican nominees reached Florida, home of Cape Kennedy. The cancellation of the shuttle program late last year hit Florida both economically and emotionally: the shuttle had launched from Florida. At the time, Space.com reported Gingrich telling a rally in Cocoa Beach that if elected, he'd have humanity back on the moon by the end of a presumptive second term. The base (and thus, the moon) would "be American," he said. He lost the race.
Traditionally, the space race has been less partisan than international. And true to form, two days ago Russian Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin also called for a moon base — this one Russian. The Moscow Times reported this week that "Russia's renewed focus on the moon may reflect a scaling back of ambition following a string of space failures." It also "comes as other countries — notably China — are eyeing the moon with greater ambition." Should the Chinese government also announce plans for a moon base, it would be interesting to see whether the three countries decide to collaborate in the mode of recent shuttle and Soyuz missions, and send humanity back to the moon together. Or, they could establish three bases — a model more like how Antarctica is divided among national initiatives.
According to the announcement by NASA's number two official, Lori Garver, via today's Wall Street Journal, the US hopes to get back to the moon even earlier than Gingrich wanted. To do what? She didn't limn the plan in much detail. Presumably she will. Giving the country a shot in the arm psychologically, plus some good jobs in high-end science and manufacturing, certainly wouldn't hurt.
Though certainly not accidental, it is nevertheless poignant that today's call for a new moonshot comes the same day as a memorial service for astronaut Neil Armstrong. Armstrong is to be buried at sea.