Dreaming of America's Future in Space

by Newt Gingrich

I have a very optimistic vision of the future. The exploration, development, and settlement of space is really an American tradition. There's a lot of interesting science and technology to it, but in the end it's really about the American idea. As President Ronald Reagan said in his first inaugural address "We have every right to dream heroic dreams... After all, we are Americans."

The tradition of our society has been one of being very aggressive in seeking out and taking on frontiers. Today, we are at the start of a period where we face both very bold frontiers here on the planet, with the beginning of what I think will be considered the age of molecular medicine, and at the same time, very bold frontiers off the planet.

By the way, I have very good credentials in the space field. I go back to the days of Missiles and Rockets Magazine which is probably beyond the memory of a lot of the younger folks reading this newspaper. I can even remember when they were separate publications, so I got interested in space very early. Later, when I was a sophomore (2nd year member of the House of Representatives), I introduced a Northwest Ordinance for Space legislation (see Title II of HR 4286 from the 97th Congress, 1981) which was looked on as a joke at the time. But it basically raised the question when there are enough people off the planet, what are the organizing principles by which they apply for admission to the United States?

Now, I cite that for this reason remember that President Thomas Jefferson made the Louisiana Purchase and then launched Lewis and Clark's expedition across the continent. What then is a comparable size gamble for the United States today? I mean, today people say they are Jeffersonians, by which they mean they are for limited government. Jefferson was for limits... he never did more than send the Marines to Tripoli, or buy half the continent, or send a scientific team to explore a path to the Pacific. So within those limits, what is the comparable journey, what are the comparable things we could do in space today?

It's very important that as Americans we bring our imagination to the challenge of the space frontier. And politicians in Washington need to hear your ideas for what goals could move the nation, and the world, to really take on the space frontier. If we want to maximize the human race's opportunity to move out into space, and if we want to ensure that freedom is the philosophy that the human race carries out into space, then what should our policies here in Washington be?

This question leads me to a couple of observations. First, America needs a project, with our European and Japanese allies, big enough to genuinely draw together the Free World. During the Cold War, we were driven together by the Soviet Empire. If we don't find several very big projects that tie us together, we are, in fact, gradually going to fall apart.

And they have to be real projects, where everyday people are working with each other. Two ideas would be to land on Mars or to begin the permanent human habitation of the Moon. But these are the sort of minimum size projects. You need to think about what is big enough, over the next twenty or thirty years, to bring our systems together. Because, if you take the total economic resources of the United States, Europe, and Japan. These are enormous economic systems. And for a relatively tiny percentage - say the amount we spend, say, on dog and cat food - you can in fact achieve enormous breakthroughs if it is spent intelligently.

However, let's not replicate the last generation of government bureaucracy. Let's try new methods, such as prizes, which worked very well in aeronautics up through the 1930s. We can use X-projects experimental demonstrations of advanced technologies - or some other entrepreneurial incentive which maximizes the results we get. Our requirement has to be the cheapest and fastest possible ways of getting what we want.

I've been asking defense contractors to find a way to lower the amount of time for fielding a new system by eighty percent, and the cost of production by forty percent, a sort of minimum goal. We need a similar objective in space. There's no reason that technology only rises in cost if the government uses it, while in every other field technology inherently gets cheaper and cheaper.

Now, if history is any guide the bureaucracy will come back and say our goals cost an impossible amount of money so we can't do it. This will justify their avoiding taking risks. We have to have Sir Francis Drake's spirit of adventure. This is a country where the risk avoidance mentality of government leads people to go out and hang glide or do cave diving. We want projects for volunteers, for people who believe they're at the cutting edge of the human future, and understand that there are some risks involved. After all, if the Wright brothers had encountered OSHA, we would never would have had Kitty Hawk.

Second, we need to look at revolutionizing how we launch people and cargo into space. America needs radically cheaper and more reliable and frequent access to space. That requires going way beyond the Space Shuttle both technically and organizationally. My recommendation is that NASA adopt the role of Delta or United or American and become a customer of private space transportation. The government should build multiple Single StageTo Orbit (SSTO) vehicles to push the state of the art in technology, then encourage the large contractors to develop fully reusable launch vehicles that meet commercial and/or government needs. The government would help out by contracting for a certain amount of guaranteed purchase from the lowest price bidder(s).

And just do it. No committee meetings. No government procurement rules. No long planning sessions. No micromanagement. No budget reviews. In other words, exactly the model of Boeing or McDonnell Douglas selling to an airliner. I've been told by some contractors that they think they could come in for as low as forty percent of the cost currently projected for a NASA developed second generation shuttle, and probably do it in about half the time.

Third, in the meantime we need to lower to cost of the current Shuttle by essentially contracting out its operation. Running the Shuttle is a management problem; the system doesn't have a motivation for improving efficiency. It's not something the government does particularly well. One alternative is to have a major contractor take it over on a bid, run it on a commercial basis, have to meet certain functional specs, and earn big incentives for downsizing. If they can share in the savings they'll go out and find ways to do things cheaper, faster, better.

Setting bold goals and cutting the cost of space access will create enormous opportunities for American industry and entrepreneurs in space. But space commercialization will also benefit us here on the Earth, too. For one thing, these new space enterprises are going to create a lot of jobs here in America. And they'll create new goods and services that we can only make or offer from space, things that you can't do on the ground. We're going to learn things that we'll look back at fifty years later and say, "Well, those are all obvious."

But I'm always fascinated by people who will invite you into their home, turn on their color television set, put on a VCR, start their microwave oven, and give you a poptop beer, and tell you that they're really tired of technological efforts. People always understand the present, and are confused about the future. The fact is, we are at the edge of a whole series of revolutions in fields like microminiaturization. We can now put seventy electric engines in a space one fourth the size of a postage stamp. But we can't quite imagine, given this level of technology, what we're going to be able to accomplish when we put our mind to it, in the"weightless" but energy and materials rich environment of space.

The odds are pretty high we'll discover a lot of useful and productive things we can do. They'll improve human health and quality of life, they'll improve incomes for American workers, and they'll strengthen our national security. And the way America can be the leading country in space is to play to our strength free enterprise and focus on space commercialization so we'll have a lot of private as well as public resources driving creative people to open the frontier.

This is a critical point. Entrepreneurs are different. In the Renewing American Civilization course we spend two hours on entrepreneurial free enterprise, and two hours on the spirit of invention and discovery. In a sense they are about the same thing. Because people who are creativine are different than people who are routine and ruledominated. People who go out and force success, force achievement, get the job done, and cut through the red tape, are different psychologically than people who dot the"i"cross the "t" and make sure they've met the requirements. We are, preeminently, the best country on the planet at being entrepreneurial, and the worst at following rules and running bureaucratic structures.

A very simple demonstration of how ingrained this is in our culture is to compare drivers in Germany and the U.S. Germany is a great bureaucratic country where there's no speed limit on the autobahn. But if you imposed a speed limit tomorrow morning virtually every German would obey it until the election, at which point the current party would be thrown out and replaced by those promising to repeal the speed limits.

Most Americans, on the other hand, have a different cultural response to the challenge of speed limits. For most Americans, a speed limit is a benchmark of opportunity. Ask yourself and your friends whether you don't automatically add five or ten miles per hour to the limit.

Now, there's a very profound message in all of this. You can get Americans to be excited by the opportunity to do neat things. But you can't regulate them worth a darn. This is why our public schools are collapsing in the inner cities. Because we try to regulate our way through a regulated approach to learning, which just means all the kids just quit trying. Whereas you can incentivize people to achieve dramatic change.

What Science Committee Chairman Bob Walker and I want to do regarding space, and where we need your help, is to develop a more traditionally American approach to the space frontier. We want to cut through the regulatory baloney. We want to create clean, simple zones of risk taking. We want to establish a tax code which dramatically favors entrepreneurship and investing in space. We want to explore the use of prizes, so that if have a goal we want to achieve, let's set up a prize and whichever entrepreneur gets there first gets the money.

And by the way, not all of these space businesses are going to be high tech. I will bet anybody that, if we're daring enough, by the year 2015 a major profit center in space will be operating a hotel. There's no reason in terms of physics that you can't get into space for about the cost of a first class ticket from Los Angeles to Sydney, Australia. That's the fuel expenditure required to get into space; we just make it artificially more expensive. So figure out how many people last year flew first class to Sydney, or flew around the world. That many people could be visiting space in 15 or 20 years.

This is real. Tourism and travel is the second largest industry on the planet. So when you talk about space, why shouldn't tourism and travel be the second largest industry in space? Or the largest? So why shouldn't we try to get this generation into space? Of course it's a risk. So is going on safari in Africa. So is going down the Amazon. The number of people who do various National Geographic and American Museum and Smithsonian trips, who spend a lot of money and risk diseases and all sorts of things is just huge. But in a free society, you're allowed to take some risks, as long as you're informed. So why shouldn't the search for adventure expand into space?

Now I'm sure somebody will say "Gingrich wants your tax dollars to subsidize rich tourists going into space." That's crazy. That's the old model, where government not only funds but does everything in space itself. That isn't working now, and it's not going to work again. Bob Walker and I are talking about empowering the private sector to take on these risks.

One idea Bob has been talking about for a long time is to set up a tax holiday on profits from space. So for ten or 15 years, businesses making new products and services in space would be able to keep 100% of their profits. I'll be fascinated to see how the Joint Tax Committee scores this idea, since these businesses don't currently exist and therefore are not paying taxes. I can't see how they could score this as a tax loss. In fact, you could make a pretty good argument that so many new jobs would be created on Earth to earn the taxfree profits in space, and all these jobs would be paying taxes, so that you'll have a large revenue increase for the government by creating the incentive in space.

Bob Walker and Chairman Bill Archer of the House Ways & Means Committee have agreed to hold joint hearings on this idea soon. My hope would be that, this year, we would pass a tax holiday on profits made in space, to begin to establish the right incentives. After all, that's how we built the transcontinental railroad. Using incentives to influence private behavior has a long Anglo-Saxon tradition. It's why Francis Drake's tiny ships were often better than Spanish Galleons, which were much bigger. They had a different incentive plan. British sailors got to keep the gold. That's at the bottom of what drove the founding of the American Colonies. It's only recently that we've used programs and rules to try to do things; incentives have a much longer tradition in our civilization.

But ultimately the responsibility for achieving your dreams for America's future in space lie with you. We in Washington need you to tell us how bold we have to be.

You tell us the incentives, you tell us the deregulation, you tell us how to set up a New American Space Agenda that will work. And then we'll work with you so that we create the right government framework within which Americans like you can bring your entrepreneurial spirit and creativity to the challenge of exploring, developing, and settling the space frontier starting with this generation.

Newt Gingrich is Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives.