The morning of April 17, on the tarmac at Reagan National Airport: The Delta (DAL) shuttle to LaGuardia appeared to be No. 287 in line for takeoff. The plane was full, mainly with purposeful-looking middle-aged men in quality suits, fully absorbed in whatever it is that absorbs them.
Suddenly, a commotion: All at once, the passengers contorted themselves to get a view out of the starboard windows.
And there it was. The actual shuttle, the space shuttle Discovery, piggybacking a ride atop a Boeing 747, on the way to the Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center at the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum, where it would be retired. A ripple of excitement -- boyish, unvarnished excitement -- moved through the cabin.
It was an entrancing sight, and completely improbable, especially to people like me, who still don’t quite understand how a 747 gets into the air, even without a space shuttle as carry-on luggage.
The 747 and the space shuttle made a pass over the Washington Monument and the capital’s other grand marble temples, all consecrated to the American idea. They gleamed in the sun as they received a salute from a spacecraft that represented the physical manifestation of American ingenuity and confidence.
Then the 747 left our view. We settled back into our seats, having been elevated for a moment by a magnificent and elegiac vision -- elegiac, because the end of the shuttle program marks the first time since the dawn of the Space Age that the U.S. government has no immediate plan to launch humans into space.
A few minutes later, while we were still parked on the tarmac, the pilot spoke to us over the public-address system. He said, in that laconic voice pilots use when they have bad news to report, that the plane’s steering seemed to be malfunctioning. We’d be returning to the terminal. If necessary, he continued, someone with Delta could help us book a later flight.
This posed a problem for me. I was due to moderate a panel at the New York Ideas Forum in a few hours. The topic our panel was supposed to address: Is America in decline?
We returned to the terminal, and I watched on CNN as Discovery finished the journey to its nursing home in the Virginia countryside. Only then did the obvious thought cross my mind: Newt is right.
This isn’t a thought that has often crossed my mind, especially over the past several months, but on the matter of space exploration and the role it has played in teaching Americans that they are capable of performing exceptional acts of creativity and bravery, Newt Gingrich is exactly right.
So I called him and told him so. He is, from what I’m told, still busy running for president. But he seemed happy to talk about space and the terrible mistake the Obama administration made by canceling the Constellation program, which was meant to get Americans back to the moon.
Gingrich was particularly keen to talk about his Republican rivals, who had savaged him during a debate in Florida for proposing that the U.S. -- mainly with private funding -- establish a colony on the moon.
This is what Mitt Romney said at the time: “If I had a business executive come to me and say they wanted to spend a few hundred billion dollars to put a colony on the moon, I’d say, ‘You’re fired.’ The idea that corporate America wants to go off to the moon and build a colony there, it may be a big idea, but it’s not a good idea.”
The small-minded Rick Santorum piled on, saying, “Let’s just be honest, we run a $1.2 trillion deficit right now ... and to go out there and promise new programs and big ideas, that’s a great thing to maybe get votes, but it’s not a responsible thing.”
Gingrich told me he was “shocked that night” by Romney and Santorum. “If I had been clever, I would have said to Romney, ‘You would have fired Christopher Columbus and John F. Kennedy because they were proposing daring and large things. They were proposing to go out and discover entire new worlds, and they did.’”
He believes that human settlements on the moon, or on Mars, are inevitable. “I can tell you flatly that there will be a human colony on the moon,” he said. “It may be Chinese, but there will be a colony on the moon. Anyone who watches the Chinese space program and doesn’t think we’re facing a competitor is foolish.”
Gingrich would make a lousy NASA chief, and I wouldn’t trust him with private money, either. But I would hire him as the space program’s resident philosopher and noodge.
The U.S. space program has never been as aimless as it is now. NASA still eats taxpayer dollars, but for what isn’t entirely clear. Every year that goes by without a grand vision for space exploration -- enunciated by leaders who believe that America, the place where just about everything worth inventing gets invented, is uniquely qualified to push at the outer edge of knowledge -- is a year in which thousands of engineers and physicists decide to do something else with their time, and a year in which thousands of students otherwise inclined to study science fail to discern its romantic and heroic possibilities.
The famous astronaut Bob Dylan once wrote what may become NASA’s epitaph: “He not busy being born is busy dying.”
Unmanned space exploration -- which the U.S. still excels at -- is, of course, less risky and less expensive than human travel. But there is no romance in unmanned space exploration, and it was romance, as much as the desire to beat the Soviets, that got the U.S. to the moon.
I told Gingrich about the reaction of a plane full of middle-aged professionals to the sight of the space shuttle over Washington, and asked him what he thought it meant.
“Everyone dreams,” he said. “It’s all about the dream. It’s an individual dream, but it’s a national dream as well. And it’s the species reaching beyond itself.”
(Jeffrey Goldberg is a Bloomberg View columnist and a national correspondent for the Atlantic. The opinions expressed are his own.)
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