Libertarian Party presidential nominee Gary Johnson raised plenty of eyebrows on Sunday by declaring that mankind eventually will have to flee to the far reaches of outer space to save itself when the Earth finally either succumbs to global warming or is obliterated by the sun.
"We do have to inhabit other planets,” Johnson explained to George Stephanopoulos, host of ABC News’ This Week. “The future of the human race is space exploration.”
Johnson, the former New Mexico governor who is playing spoiler in the 2016 presidential sweepstakes, did little with his comments to help overcome his increasingly loopy public persona, marked recently by confusion about the war in Syria and domestic terror attacks. However, he placed himself squarely in the ranks of U.S. politicians who have talked up interplanetary travel.
Yesterday he was responding to a question about comments he made back in 2011 about the long-term effects of climate change. Essentially, he said then that nobody had to worry because the sun was eventually going to destroy the planet anyway.
“Can’t we have a little humor once in a while?” Johnson chortled to Stephanopoulos, as if there was anything remotely funny about that. “And that is long term, plate tectonics at one point, Africa and South America separated... and I am talking now about the Earth and the fact that we have existed for billions of years and will going forward.”
“Look, what it points to also is the fact that we do have to inhabit other planets,” Johnson explained to an increasingly incredulous looking Stephanopoulos. “The future of the human race is space exploration.”
In fairness to Johnson, discussion of futuristic space travel has a long, storied tradition in this country among policy makers, scientists and politicians. The U.S., after all, was the first country to put a man on the moon. And after a long hiatus in NASA’s manned space program, the privately funded Mars One project is seeking to establish a permanent human settlement on the red planet, while SpaceX’s Elon Musk plans to announce a competing plan to colonize Mars.
Moreover, libertarians have toyed for decades with the idea of interplanetary space travel, even to the point of advancing the idea of a free-market space colony. But presidential candidates typically have had to tread lightly in expounding on their visions of space exploration and colonization to avoid being mocked by their rivals as dreamers, big spenders or even sci-fi fanatics
Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich of Georgia learned that lesson the hard way during his failed campaign for the Republican presidential nomination in 2012. In January of that year, Gingrich told a cheering crowd along Florida’s Space Coast, near Cape Canaveral, that if elected president, he would establish a permanent colony on the moon and develop a spacecraft that could reach Mars -- all by the end of his second term.
Gingrich, a long-time space enthusiast and futurist, told the crowd that he didn’t mind being attacked by his opponents for being “grandiose” in his visions for space travel. “I would just want you to note: Lincoln standing at Council Bluffs was grandiose,” he said. “The Wright Brothers standing at Kitty Hawk were grandiose. John F. Kennedy was grandiose. I accept the charge that I am grandiose and that Americans are instinctively grandiose.”
But former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney, the GOP frontrunner, dismissed Gingrich’s proposals as “zany,” and insisted that they would not stand up to voter scrutiny in a general election campaign against President Obama. “The idea of a lunar colony? I think that’s going to be a problem in the general election,” Romney said at one point. Romney went on to beat Gingrich and a handful of other rivals for the GOP nomination that year.
Two years before his unsuccessful campaign for president, former Democratic vice president Al Gore also dreamed aloud about a mission to deep space that many in the government deemed impractical and too costly. Gore in 1998 proposed the Deep Space Climate Observatory (DSCOVR), a satellite designed to observe the Earth from great distances. He said his idea was inspired by The Blue Marble -- Apollo 17’s photograph that provided the first images showing the fully illuminated face of the planet.
Gore said that he awoke one night with a vision of providing “a clearer view of our world.” In a subsequent speech at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), Gore challenged NASA to send a satellite to a spot one million miles from Earth in the direction of the sun, where the two bodies gravitational pulls are in equilibrium, according to media reports. After many years of delay and agency resistance during the George W. Bush and Obama administrations, DSCOVR was finally launched with little fanfare from Cape Canaveral a board a Space X Falcon 9 rocket on February 11, 2015.
While space travel and exploration has barely registered a blip on the radar screen of the 2016 presidential campaign, Republican Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas said in August that a commercialized NASA space flight program would be “an incredibly high priority” for him if he were elected president.
“One of the real problems with the Obama administration is they’ve de-emphasized space exploration,” said Cruz, the chairman of the Senate subcommittee on science, space and competitiveness. “They’ve de-emphasized the hard sciences, and they’re diverting more and more of the NASA budget to political agendas like studying global warming instead of fulfilling the core mission of NASA.”
Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump said during a campaign rally in New Hampshire in response to a question that sending people to Mars “honestly is wonderful.” But then, rolling his eyes, he added that “I want to rebuild our infrastructure first.”
For her part, Clinton appears to be more interested in extraterrestrials than future space travel.
When she was asked by Jimmy Kimmel in a late-night TV interviews about U.F.O.s, she quickly corrected his terminology, the New York Times reported in May. “You know, there’s a new name,” she said. “It’s unexplained aerial phenomenon. U.A.P. That’s the latest nomenclature.”
Clinton pledge that – barring any concerns about breaching national security -- she would open up the government files on the subject, in a reversal of Obama administration policy. According to The New York Times, “Her position has elated U.F.O. enthusiasts, who have declared Mrs. Clinton the first “E.T. candidate.”