02/02/2012 02:17 pm ET | Updated Apr 03, 2012

Newt May Have Lost in the Space State, but He Wasn't Just Giving Way to Lunar-cy

By Greg Autry

Now that it's over, it seems to me that the most interesting thing about the GOP primary in Florida was seeing America's beleaguered space program getting some political attention. Predictably, Newt Gingrich's bold visions of moon bases and resurgent American daring-do in space were viewed like a Daffy Duck cartoon by a media ever more resigned to national mediocrity and a public ever more comfortable with second place finishes behind a militant, communist China.

Last year, President Obama's visionary move to outsource routine space operations to competitive private sector firms met with a similar reaction from a cynical Congress. Many, if not most, politicos see space exploration as either unnecessary or as a right-wing jobs program for middle-aged engineers in red states like Alabama and Texas. The former view is smugly embraced by many on the left who see exploration as a waste of our ever-dwindling resources, while the latter vision is represented by the antiquarian chair of the House Science and Technology committee, Ralph Hall, a Republican who ironically argues that a free market would be unable to deliver reliable and safe solutions.

Both of these views completely fail to grok both the documented benefits of America's leadership in space and the font of inspiration for visionaries from Wernher von Braun to Richard Branson who have aspired to send people there.

I could go on about the contribution of the mid-century aerospace boom to the American economy and technological infrastructure from PCs (see the Steve Job's bio) to the Internet (launched as a DARPA project led by a former NASA engineer). However, with space being limited (pun intended) I'll offer just one little example. According to a Motorola funded report, the Global Positioning System (GPS) -- originally designed as a military project and offered to civilian navigation by President Reagan after the Soviet downing of a Korean 747 in 1983 -- now saves American long haul trucking fleets $52 billion a year. That's only one small application of one amazing space spinoff and yet the economic return is larger than the combined NASA (at $18 billion) and military (est. at $24 billion) space budgets combined. Oh, and by the way, it's probably also the world's number one technology for reducing carbon emissions, by improving the navigational efficency of millions of vessels and vehicles around the globe.

A recent piece in The Economist nicely summarized the viewpoint that favors timid robotic missions with the statement, "Ultimately, manned space flight is futile. All the scientifically and practically important stuff can be done by robots." While I might amuse myself with the thought that this fellow has a crush on SIRI and owns one of those Sony robot dogs, somebody has got to have the courage to stand up and say that the most valuable return on space science is not from abstract experiments in physics or attempts to scan for primitive life on some Jovan moon. Heck, I'm as excited as the next guy about glorious pictures of an expanding universe and finding those sneaky scorpions on Venus, but the ultimate purpose of space flight and all human explorations must be to expand the realm of human presence and deliver a brighter future for all.

At the risk of looking beyond the next election cycle and being declared a nutcase like Newt, I must point out that Malthus made it clear that unless we find a way to move beyond our precious home planet we will eventually kill it or ourselves in a sad battle over its limited resources. While technology offers us a plethora of delaying tactics, ultimately development of manned space flight offers the only permanent solution to that dilemma.

Incongruously, some on the right need a lesson in free market economics from American firms, like Elon Musk's California's Space Exploration Technologies (SpaceX) that are ready and eager to take on this challenge given the chance. In an amusing twist of global trade norms a Chinese space executive at a Colorado conference recently complained that their Long March rockets could not possibly compete with the low-cost launch services of that California startup. No surprise really, unless you think centrally planned, patronage-based businesses are efficient.

Despite this, there is a growing group inside the aerospace community so eager to throw in the towel that they would extend America's thinning space budget by embracing a brutal and militant China in order to tap the its ill-gotten trade wealth. (Wealth acquired from abusive exploitation of its domestic labor force and the systematic gutting of America's industrial base.) Folks like Robert Dickman, executive director of The American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics continually push for technology exchange with China under the pretense that the cadres who run China's secretive state owned space firms are "businessmen" that are "fun and interesting to be with." No doubt Bob, I've heard about those parties myself.

The Economist suggested that the U.S. only denies access to the International Space Station out of either "paranoia" or "pique." Heck, if a de-industrialized U.S. can no longer afford the bucks for Buck Rogers and Ralph Hall won't trust American entrepreneurship, we might as well just give up and let the folks who make our iPhones and build those swell Dong Feng nuclear ICBMs do the job. If it's good enough to fry my family, it must be good enough to fly America's astronauts.

The funny thing is the Chinese space program is really not in the least bit impressive. It's a clunky, slow moving imitation of the Soviet program from the 1960s. Despite having stolen vast amounts of Russian and American space technology, China has managed to put only six astronauts into low Earth orbit over eight years using a vehicle that looks like an illustration from a Jules Verne novel.

Let us never forget that in the eight years following Alan Shepard's 1961 sub-orbital flight America lofted more than 40 astronauts in a score of flights and landed men on the moon for an encore. To suggest that we can't continue to lead or that we must go into business with thugs is defeatism in the extreme. America must go forward aggressively in space and we must do it not because it would be an easy political decision to make at this time, but because it would be hard.

- Greg Autry teaches Macro Economics at the Merage School of Business, UC Irvine and is the co-author, with Peter Navarro, of Death by China. He holds a MBA from UCI and is completing a Management PhD in the area of public policy and economics. Greg serves as senior economist with the American Jobs Alliance and is on the Commercial Space Group at the AIAA. More info can be found at