For those of you not following the Republican contest for president, Newt Gingrich had a rather novel idea a while back. He not only proposed establishing colonies on the moon, but also proposed that, upon reaching a population of 13,000, a moon colony could apply for U.S. statehood. Leave aside that 13,000 people is far below the usual population requirement for statehood — after all, breeding on the moon undoubtedly presents some unusual challenges. Rather think of the travel difficulties those “moon state” elected U.S. senators and representatives would have getting to Washington to represent their constituents, while regularly returning home to stay in touch with those constituents (“Skyping” probably wouldn’t cut it).
All in all an impractical idea — and typical Newt.
But that said, also typical Newt, he has identified something important — not his “moon state” but his insistence that America go back to the moon, and beyond. Perhaps not now — America is too deeply in debt — but surely at some point, because it is worth doing for reasons having little to do with a “green eyeshade” cost-benefit analysis, although, even there — as in our past space programs — we would see huge value in terms of new technologies developed and new discoveries made. My guess is the solutions to our energy and environmental problems are out in space, and conducting scientific and biological experiments in zero gravity opens up possibilities unknown on Earth.
But the true value I see in space travel is, for lack of a better word, the value to our soul, to our sense of our place in the universe — the value in terms of our relationship with the cosmos, and therefore the incalculable value to ourselves. For thousands of years, planet Earth was our center of the universe, our sole marker of our place in the order of things. And then Copernicus and Galileo (and others) made us aware that planet Earth is actually just a tiny dot revolving around a minor-league star in the backwater outskirts of some huge galactic unknown. And from that discovery came the natural, “in-our-DNA” urge to explore that huge unknown.
So we made that beginning with the early Mercury, Gemini and Apollo space programs. And with those space flights — in particular Apollo 11’s landing of men on the moon — we truly came to understand that Earth is not the end of our journey, but the starting point for an unending, eternal journey meant to inspire all of us and give mankind a new purpose. That changed forever our relationship to the “world,” just as it has changed forever our place in it. And it has certainly changed forever us. In that sense Newt is absolutely right. We need to continue the journey.