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To Boldly Go, Or Not: Newt Gingrich and his Quest to Outer Space

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Newt Gingrich dragged the moon and Mars into the presidential contest the other day, mostly to guffaws from comedy pundits and disparaging comments from Mitt Romney, who is sure that Tranquility Base won't be holding a nominating caucus any time soon. Newt didn't seem to mind the razzing or that he had misjudged the meanness of the cranky Republicans he hopes to lead.

Newt thinks space exploration is a grand idea, and Newt embraces his grand ideas with the big love that California's own Bob Hertzberg bear hugs his. Once, a lot of us embraced the "high frontier" of space the same way. I certainly did.

A spate of reading science fiction from the outer edges of the pulp magazine universe has reminded me of what I longed for and feared in yesterday's tomorrows. Setting aside the bug-eyed monsters of my childhood and the babes in distress (and in skimpy space suits) of my adolescence, the bigger reasons for being out there - on the moon, on Mars - were explored in detail in hundreds of stories written by dozens of poorly paid dreamers in the 1940s and 1950s.

You can hear a tinny echo of some of those reasons in Newt's pronouncement that he should be the president who will colonize the moon for America. But the pulpiest of writers were far more nuanced about the meaning of space, even if they wanted the same thing that Newt does.

Out there, the pulp writers said, were answers to the oppressive Cold War, the vacuity of modern life, the wasting of Earth's natural resources and the all too real temptation to despair. But out there, too, were new forms of economic and ethnic segregation, new ways to suffer and new obsessions to steal the soul. There might be Space Brothers out there to lead us into a cosmic utopia, but they might also be slick salesmen of the moral scams Terrans fall for so easily. New worlds could make everyone rich or make everyone a corporate cog. Space would ennoble us. Or space would crush us without thinking. Or space would make us into something we never imagined or wanted.

There is much that is laughable in yesterday's tomorrows: "psionics," telepathy, green-skinned princesses in see-through negligees. There is some to be frightened of: emptiness, silence, estrangement and infinite horizons. And there are questions that probe at what it means to be human and - I hope - answers still useful today, including our reaching the "high frontier" of space.

Man in space isn't the national aspiration it once was, when I was a boy. It may just be more Newtonian bloviation. And it may only be something from yesterday and not for tomorrow.

[Note: The NASA photo in today's post, titled "X-15 test pilots in a lighter mood," was taken in 1966.]

D. J. Waldie, author, historian, and as the New York Times said in 2007, "a gorgeous distiller of architectural and social history," writes about Los Angeles on KCET's SoCal Focus blog.

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