Whenever Newt Gingrich talks about lunar colonies and conquering Mars — and he certainly wasn’t stingy on all that during last night’s GOP debate in Jacksonville — most onlookers see an opportunity for easy laughs and cheap mockery. But me? I ask myself, “What would Warren Ellis do?”
In addition to being an iconic comic book writer (Transmetropolitan, Planetary, Red), cult novelist (Crooked Little Vein), futurist intellectual, and beloved Internet curmudgeon, Ellis is also a longtime proponent of space exploration. The 43-year-old Brit has written two acclaimed graphic novels on the topic (Orbiter and Ministry of Space), as well as an array of nonfiction essays.
His impassioned arguments for space travel run from the bluntly utilitarian (“[K]eeping all your breeding pairs in one place is a retarded way to run a species,” he claimed in 2010) to the inspirational (“Human spaceflight remains experimental. It is very dangerous. It demands great ingenuity,” he wrote in the introduction to Orbiter. “But we cannot remain children, standing on the shore or in front of the TV set”).
So I couldn’t help but wonder: with the future of human spaceflight at some risk, would Ellis see Gingrich as a fellow dreamer? Was there common ground between this bearded geek icon and the doughy former Speaker of the House? I got in touch with Ellis to find out — and ended up with a lot more than I bargained for.
Newt Gingrich has talked about off-world colonization since at least the 1980s. What do you think of his space plans?
Ellis: He was pally, way back when, with the likes of Robert Zubrin, a slightly wiggy space advocate whose “inventions” include an incredibly dirty nuclear rocket and a system of delusion that allows him to convince very confused people to sit in a treehouse in Nunavut and pretend to be on Mars for a couple of months each year. Zubrin’s probably still out there beating the drum for his friend Newt, working on the fallacious conception that when Newt becomes king he will give Zubrin what he needs to show everyone he wasn’t crazy after all.
Have you been following him throughout the primaries?
I get the impression he didn’t really get warmed up until he reached Florida. Speaker Gingrich, as a “historian,” will be well aware that Nixon announced the Space Shuttle program to replace the closing Apollo program in order to retain Florida and keep the aerospace industry on his side. With Shuttle closing, it’s the most obvious thing in the world to walk into Florida and say, “I will give you all the money to build stuff.” You’ll probably see him do the same in California.
What kind of merit is there to Gingrich’s proposals — which he’s self-described as “grandiose” — for developing a rocket that can reach Mars, establishing a permanent moon base, and so on?
Well, let’s start with the “51st State” bit that’s being bandied about. Speaker Gingrich knows as well as the next political mammal that the Outer Space Treaty forbids any one nation from claiming sovereignty over the moon. So, not so much with the 51st State crap.
Now, a rocket that can reach Mars, or the Moon, with a crew-rated module. NASA used to have those. They were called Saturn V launchers. They stopped making them. And, right now, I don’t believe anyone is building a launcher with comparable juice. Space-X are making noises about one, but getting a stack crew-rated is a long haul. The Chinese, who seem to be basically cloning Apollo technology, aren’t there yet, but could be inside ten years. Everyone’s aware of this. The sort of lifting power we had with Apollo is gone. And Apollo would have been a crappy way of going to Mars anyway, because it’s still too slow, everyone would get cancer and it’d make being cooped up in the ISS for a year feel like living on Richard Branson’s private island.
Basically, because NASA stopped being able to try and solve all the problems, and because no-one else was all that interested, the science of crewed spaceflight really hasn’t advanced all that much since the 70s. So he can be as “grandiose” as he likes, but the term for what he’s actually doing is “bullshitting,” because neither NASA nor the private sector are in a condition to make his fantasies happen within the timeframe. There’s bugger all worth mining on the moon. The idea of extracting helium-3 from the lunar regolith to drive nuclear-fusion power stations that don’t exist yet… it’s all dream stuff.
Going to Mars is important. Going back to the Moon is, I think, important. But his plans and reasons for going make about as much sense as if he had said we had to go to Mars to find him something new to marry. I’m genuinely interested in seeing the human race escape the planet and go exploring. Speaker Gingrich would like to be elected.
A page from 2003’s Orbiter.
The Chinese space program is often seen as the successor to that of the US, but it sounds like you’re pessimistic about its creativity. Do you see privatized space flight achieving any goals that you think governments have abandoned?
The thing about private spaceflight is that private industry isn’t terribly well known for doing things that don’t have a big fat profit at the other end. And human spaceflight isn’t something that tends to come with a profit function. Mining the moon without, at the very least, the industrial structure at this end to use the mining product for anything is retarded.
The thing is, it’s a bigger question than maybe it looks: everyone but China has abandoned human spaceflight. Russia uses its crewed capability to make money from America, at this point. ISS was only lofted as a place for the Shuttle to go, because the Shuttle was such a crocked piece of shit that it couldn’t reliably go more than two hundred miles up. And sometimes exploded trying even that.
I’m not pessimistic about Chinese creativity, because if you’re starting a space program from scratch, of course you look at what worked for other people. I see combinations of Apollo and Russian technologies, robust and proven gear. Apollo vehicles made round trips of half a million miles and brought ’em back alive even when the gas tanks exploded.
Now, some people will say to you that Virgin space tourism counts as human spaceflight. But to put a bit of perspective on that, what they do is what Alan Shepard did in Freedom 7 in 1961 — a suborbital lob of fifteen minutes duration, an order of magnitude below what Yuri Gagarin did a month earlier. So what you can say about Virgin Galactic in 2012 is that it’s matched capability with, um, 1961.
Are there other technological goals on the scale of space travel that you think humanity should be pushing for, right now? If so, do you see models for us achieving them?
I’m not sure where everyone got the idea that the human race can only do one thing at a time. “What about here on Earth?” people say. “Shouldn’t there be other goals here that we should be pushing for?” Sure there are. But at this late date I’m fairly sure we’ve mastered walking and chewing gum as a simultaneous operation.
I’m not suggesting that we can’t do two things at once. But if there were things in addition to space travel that you think could have a similarly massive effect on humanity’s ability to grow as a species…
Curing cancer. Increasing quality human longevity. Induced pluripotential cell treatments. Nailing down that weird neutrino anomaly that seems to allow for faster-than-light communication. The usual shopping list. Also I want an orbital death ray.
How does the current political climate in the US make you feel about the country’s ability to innovate and advance the species?
I tentatively suspect that if President Obama gets his second term, and loosens up some cash, something like the public/private partnerships he originally outlined will start to happen. But I also think these will largely be tied to commercial goals — tourism and sat launch. Unless we’re talking about out-and-out payola, I don’t know that there’s any real incentive for commercial spacelaunch companies to get involved in exploratory programs.
If we’re talking outside the space launch field, then, hell, America innovates every day, in a myriad of fields. The field of metamaterials, for instance — invisibility cloaks, and hiding events from time itself? That’s just today, as I talk to you, and that’s all American. I realize there’s a narrative that America is all done, and doesn’t make stuff any more, and it’s midnight for the American experiment and all that, but that ignores the basic mathematics of a country with three hundred million people in it. For every bunch of dubiously photogenic fetal-alcohol-syndrome cases from New Jersey who get on the TV for ten minutes, there are ten times as many people at MIT inventing the future.
As someone who’s been very astute at understanding American political mythology — in Crooked Little Vein and elsewhere — what does the 2012 GOP primary say to you about the United States?
Absolutely nothing. Don’t get me wrong, it’s a fun sideshow, but I don’t believe it says anything about the country other than that working democracy is like making haggis, in that you really don’t want to see what goes into that shit. It does say a lot about the state of the GOP, and I can’t help but wonder if the party moderates are just letting this parade of mental patients and unelectable criminals simply happen, so that they can detoxify the party after the inevitable firestorm of failure.
From 2003’s Orbiter.
Orbiter, your graphic novel about a world in which NASA has abandoned spaceflight, was published in 2003. How do you think about that book now?
You know, it’s funny: a couple of years ago, a film producer told me that he thought the opening vista of Kennedy Space Center as an inoperative wasteground, lightly populated by shanty towns, was implausibly grim. In a way, he was right: the place is now so poisoned by spacelaunch byproduct that it’s going to take years and millions to clean it to the point where it can be occupied.
The book might actually have more resonance now, as a kind of eulogy to NASA, or, at least, a dream of NASA I once had.
What role does fiction play in inspiring innovation and human development?
Most centers of scientific innovation are full of people walking around with a head full of science fiction, I’ve found. I mean, thank god. It means someone’s still buying my books. And if it’s NASA, then they’re using your tax dollars to do it. Excellent.