Newt the Prophet


I am amazed every time I hear reports of teen suicide or stories about people who despair because of boredom or because they have nothing left to look forward to.

We are on the verge of enormous frontiers of knowledge and opportunity, although our elite and entertainment cultures are so negative and cynical -- and so scientifically and technologically ignorant -- that you would never know it.

They fail to energize the sense of excitement that is potentially available to all of us.

From exploring space to plumbing the oceans' depths to discoveries of molecular medicine to the unexplored worlds of computers and virtual reality, we are on the threshold of great achievements.

Our lives are going to be enriched and expanded by inventions and discoveries of which we now have only the vaguest ideas. Our generation is still seeking its Jules Verne or H.G. Wells to dazzle our imaginations with hope and optimism.

Instead we have writers such as Michael Crichton, whose work is just standard alarmist environmentalism in which humans are forever messing up nature, a Frankenstein story in which curious scientists are the villains.

Why not aspire to build a real Jurassic Park? It may not be at all impossible, you know. Wouldn't that be one of the most spectacular accomplishments of human history?

What if we could bring back extinct species? Why not take Crichton's negative vision a few steps further and actually celebrate the awesome potential of our future?

Arthur C. Clarke is a science-fiction writer who truly embraces the future.

No wonder it was Clarke who in 1948 proposed the system of communications satellites that today links our long-distance and cellular phones and enables us to call around the world. His positive vision actually stimulated discoveries.

Somehow we must reintegrate the scientific with the popular and reconnect the future to the present. This is less a job for scientists, engineers, bureaucrats and administrators and more a job for novelists, moviemakers, popularizers and politicians.

When I was young, Frank Buck's "Bring-'em-Back-Alive" adventures, Charles Lindbergh's solo flight across the Atlantic, Clarke's visions of space exploration and the American Museum's diving bell exploring the deep oceans made me believe there was a whole universe waiting to be learned and explored.

Life was truly a grand adventure.

Now, at 51 years of age, I am still convinced that this positive vision of my childhood was the right one. But somehow our culture has lost its way.

One of the major reasons the spirit of adventure has gone out of space exploration is that we have allowed bureaucracies to dominate too many of our scientific adventures.

Look at the difference between the movies "The Right Stuff" and "Star Wars" and you will see what I mean.

Bureaucracies are designed to minimize risk and to create orderly systematic procedures. In a way they tend to be inherently dull. They also tend to be slow, cumbersome and expensive.

Imagine what the Lewis-and-Clark expedition would have been if it had been run by today's government.

Instead of a small, dedicated and courageous band launching into the unknown and reaching the Pacific Ocean, there would have been a large, cumbersome, slow-moving and cautious committee of researchers who would have been lucky to reach the Rocky Mountains.

I recently asked an aerospace executive what would happen if we got the government out of the business of designing space shuttles and space stations. She replied that the cost would drop by 40 percent and the amount of time would be cut in half.

Then I asked a senior designer for another aerospace company how we could best buy a second-generation shuttle. He replied that a space shuttle was technically about as complicated as a commercial airliner and should cost as much.

Thus the next-generation space shuttle, which is currently estimated at $36 billion, really should be built for about $10 billion.

To his credit, Dan Goldin, the current head of NASA, understands these principles and is doing everything he can to turn them into reality. With his help we are going to create a more exciting future in space.

Jerry Pournelle, an aerospace engineer and science-fiction writer, notes that going into orbit takes about the same amount of energy as traveling from Los Angeles to Sydney, Australia.

In principle, a ticket to go into orbit should not be dramatically more expensive than a first-class ticket to Australia.

I believe that space tourism will be a common fact of life during the adulthood of children born this year, that honeymoons in space will be the vogue by 2020.

Imagine weightlessness and its effects and you will understand some of the attractions. Imagine looking out at the Earth from your honeymoon suite and you will understand even more why it will be a big item.

For those who have everything, a long trip in space will be the equivalent of today's sailboat, yacht or private airplane.

The challenge for us is to get government and bureaucracy out of the way and put scientists, engineers, entrepreneurs and adventurers back into the business of exploration and discovery.

The 21st century should be as great a century of exploration for humanity as the 16th century was for the Europeans. Now that is an exciting future.

Newt Gingrich is speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives. This article is adapted from his book "To Renew America," published by HarperCollins.

Copyright © 2019, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad