Editor's note: David Frum, a CNN contributor, was a special assistant to President George W. Bush from 2001 to 2002. He is the author of six books, including "Comeback: Conservatism That Can Win Again."
Washington (CNN) -- Newt Gingrich has absorbed a fair degree of ridicule for his campaign proposal to build an American colony on the moon. Before focusing the laughter solely on Gingrich, however, let's recall that it is the declared policy of the U.S. government to return a human being to the moon by 2020, in preparation for sending a human astronaut to Mars. If Gingrich is wrong (and he is), he's not wrong alone.
As you read this, an international space station is orbiting Earth, staffed by a crew of six (currently, three Russians, two Americans and one astronaut from the European Union). Cost to date: $100 billion.
American's space agency, NASA, is developing a next-generation rocket capable of lofting human crews. The rocket remains on the ground, but its development costs have soared, from a projected $28 billion to $44 billion.
And the purpose of all this commotion and expense?
It's very hard to answer.
The useful space science these days is done by unmanned probes and satellites: the Cassini-Huygens mission that returned amazing images of Saturn and its moons; the Calipso mission to monitor the health of Earth's atmosphere; the Juno mission now en route to Jupiter. In November 2011, NASA launched its latest Mars probe, Curiosity. Curiosity should reach Mars by August.
Here's the great thing about all these missions: They do not need to be engineered to zero defect, and no plans need be made to return them home. Unmanned space exploration need not worry about food and water or the effects of isolation and low-gravity on the human spirit and body.
But once human beings are inserted, everything changes. Lives are put at risk. Costs soar. And for what?
Most of the research purpose of sending human beings into space is to test the effects of sending human beings into space. The missions exist to test whether the missions can continue. This seems the very definition of futility.
Human space flight originated as a symbolic competition during the Cold War era. The development of nuclear weapons deterred the U.S. and the Soviet Union from the hot war they might otherwise have fought. Instead, the two sides sought other ways to demonstrate their power, culminating in the race to the moon.
If anyone had ever imagined that Soviet communism was technologically or economically competitive with American democracy, that illusion was retired forever when Neil Armstrong and his team touched the moon's surface and then returned safely.
These human missions to space were political and military, not scientific. Their point made, their purpose ended. Meanwhile, the microelectronic and robotics revolutions of the 1970s and after enabled better science to be done without any human presence at all.
Unfortunately, government agencies rarely end when their purposes do. NASA had originated to send men into space, and NASA (and its congressional supporters) were unwilling to abandon that mission merely because it no longer had any justification. New justifications had to be found! The space shuttle was built to serve a space station that was built to give the space shuttle something to do.
And if you asked, "Why?" you got an answer like this, from space enthusiast columnist Charles Krauthammer:
"Why do it? It's not for practicality. We didn't go to the moon to spin off cooling suits and freeze-dried fruit. Any technological return is a bonus, not a reason. We go for the wonder and glory of it. Or, to put it less grandly, for its immense possibilities. We choose to do such things, said JFK, 'not because they are easy, but because they are hard.' And when you do such magnificently hard things -- send sailing a Ferdinand Magellan or a Neil Armstrong -- you open new human possibility in ways utterly unpredictable."
With the greatest respect, "the wonder and glory of it" is not a very compelling answer to the question: "What do I get for my hundred billion bucks?"
Especially since the "wonder" part can be better satisfied at vastly lower cost without human astronauts. The pictures from Saturn are pretty wonderful, and so will be the pictures from Jupiter, and no astronaut was needed to capture them.
The hard truth to deliver to the laid-off engineers on Florida's space coast is that space exploration is another industry where automation has reduced the number of human employees needed. To propose putting 13,000 human beings on the moon is a lot like proposing to return to the days when steel mills employed tens of thousands of people. It's not a vision of the future. It's nostalgia.
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The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of David Frum.