31/01/2012 05:29 GMT | Updated 31/03/2012 06:12 BST

On Lunar Bases and Lunatics

One of my favorite quirks of the English language is that the words lunar and lunatic both derive from the same Latin root; the connection, of course, is that many once believed that exposure to the light of the full moon caused one to lose his or her mind. While this idea long ago went the way of witch burning, many Americans were reminded of the kinship of these two words in recent days as they watched Newt Gingrich jet around Florida to promote his idea of establishing a permanent American base on the Moon.

Gingrich may have hoped to give his insurgent candidacy an extra bounce by all of this moon talk, but instead his support seems to have fallen into a bit of a crater. The buzz surrounding Gingrich's comments gave his rivals a perfect opportunity to strong-arm Mr. Gingrich in the final debate before the Florida primary, forcing him to defend a plan that most Americans view as a fiscal black hole.

However, despite prevailing opinion, I find myself again in the awkward position of wanting to defend Mr. Gingrich. I actually don't think his idea is all that crazy. I'll concede, a permanent lunar base is probably unrealistic for now. But that doesn't mean that America should give up on the project of human space exploration. In a broader sense, Gingrich is exactly right: whoever is in the Oval Office on January 20, 2013 ought to push for a return to the Moon and, eventually, a landing on Mars.

The reason, quite simply, is that America's position as a superpower depends on its ability to capture the world's attention and admiration. America is a much more effective global leader when it can show the rest of the world that it is pushing the boundary of what is possible, and when it can demonstrate that its innovations serve the interests of humanity as a whole. This is part of what political scientists call 'Soft Power:' the ability to lead through good will and persuasion rather than military coercion. America's soft power in the international system has always rested on the innovations it has brought to humanity, including everything from constitutional self-government to the Saturn V rocket, and so giving up on lunar exploration would be a significant loss.

It's easy to argue in this age of austerity that such considerations are no longer relevant. But I disagree. If America could recapture the admiration it earned in 1969 as the world stared at the grainy images of Apollo 11, it would go a long way towards refuting the prophecies of national decline. I think human spaceflight is worth the investment, and I think that such a project merits the federal government's full support.

Exploration of the cosmos is daring and costly, but it's not crazy. The real lunacy is to expect that America will retain its superpower status if it gives up on the pursuits that won the world's respect in the first place.