Opinion: Is returning to the moon really such a crackpot idea?

newt gingrich is the moonNewt Gingrich has always been a polarizing figure in politics, and he’s embracing that reputation to a tee during his run for the Republican nomination. Yet amidst all of the crazy he has spewed thus far in his campaign, there is one gem to be found in the dangerous rough of Gingrich’s ideas – the moon.

Now, this should not be considered an endorsement for Gingrich, nor should it even be thought of as an agreement with the specifics of his moon colonization plan (part of which is illegal – you can’t claim the moon). However, space travel and exploration has fallen by the wayside given our current economic climate, and reinstating the drive to explore our galaxy is far from Gingrich’s worst idea, yet one he’s taken a significant beating for.

But at the core of this idea, I came away with one thought. That really, Americans have the right to be frustrated or at the least saddened by the great decline in funding to further investigate the moon and our galaxy. And that we shouldn’t balk and call it crazy.

Tech evangelists are space evangelists

The tech elite are on Gingrich’s side, at least in principle. A number of very rich, drunk-off-startups CEOs and venture capitalists are interested in investing in space. Even Silicon Valley kingpin Peter Thiel has complained about the avenues invention has taken. “I don’t consider this to be a technological breakthrough,” he told the New Yorker regarding the iPhone. “Compare this with the Apollo space program.”

Thiel believes that Web 2.0 and the technology revolution we’ve seen emerge over the last decade has failed to produce enough jobs or real change. And that’s saying something coming from someone who is lining his pockets thanks to the Facebook IPO. The site for his VC firm, Founders Fund, reads “What happened to the future? We wanted flying cars, instead we got 140 characters.”

It’s true. Think about the billions of dollars that have been spent during tech startups’ fundraising rounds on ideas that for some reason seemed brilliant but were shallow and meaningless, or the amount of money big tech companies spend on lobbying, even as they wax philosophically on the need to keep exploring and pushing boundaries. It’s disheartening to say the least. Maybe it’s time VC culture and big names in the industry started thinking a little bigger picture.

Where’s the money?

Thiel’s very disillusionment with the industry means it’s no surprise that Founders Fund has invested in SpaceX, a company that is trying to decrease the cost of going to space. “If it succeeds, there should at last be plenty to do in space, from telecommunications to power generation to high-precision microgravity fabrication – if investors with cash are ready to fund that innovation.”

SpaceX isn’t just a pipe dream either. The company has a contract with NASA and the U.S. military, along with other non-American government agencies, and two years ago , it became the first privately-held company to launch, orbit, and recover a spacecraft. SpaceX is planning a mission to Mars in 2018.

Virgin’s Richard Branson has also notoriously been investing in space travel. He began his Virgin Galactic airline in 2010, back when aligning the nation’s space exploration efforts with commercial transportation was seeming more possible. Since then NASA’s funding has been considerably cut, but Virgin Galactic’s still aims to offer orbital human spaceflights to paying customers in the future.

Original Silicon Valley pirate Paul Allen has recently made his own mark on the market. His new company Stratolaunch Systems wants to break into the private space flight industry and hopes to offer flights within five years.

The future is not just the Web

This isn’t a passing trend or an unexplainable anomaly: the people who have built and invested in technology that has already changed our lives are dead set on exploring space. To some of them it’s like this great big opportunity staring us in the face that we’re just allowing to sit there while we invest in Pinterest clones and applications that help you find applications.

And it looks like rich tech insiders aren’t the only ones getting antsy. NASA says that while human space exploration for its organization has been shuttered, it has had a huge influx of applicants. It’s the second highest number of applications NASA has ever seen – the highest was in 1978, during the collective enthusiasm left over from the space race. If you need a few reasons why NASA wants to explore the moon, here are more than 100 of them.

Clearly, there’s an undying desire to journey to the final frontier. Unfortunately, the billions of dollars a year to fund it simply can’t be found in this economy. That’s where the private sector will need to step up to the plate, if we want to make it back to the moon by 2020. There are, of course, public-sector suggestions for redirecting money to space exploration – namely, taking federal dollars being spent on campaigns in the Middle East and pulling troops out of what some believe are now safe and stable climates.

While Gingrich’s plan to take the moon is flawed (in some cases, impossible) when it comes to budget, technology, and perhaps most of all ethics, I don’t want to lump moon exploration in with crazy ideas too quickly.