Big Think Interview With Newt Gingrich
Newt Gingrich served as the Speaker of the United States House of Representatives from 1995 to 1999. In 1995, Time magazine selected him as their Person of the Year for his role in leading the Republican Revolution in the House, ending a 40-year Democratic Party majority. A Ph.D. in Modern European History, he is the author of the non-fiction works "To Renew America" and "A Contract with the Earth," among others, as well as a variety of works of historical fiction. He is currently a senior fellow at the conservative think tank American Enterprise Institute—where he focuses on health care, information technology, the military, and politics—and the founder of the Center for Health Transformation. He lives in McLean, Virginia.
Question: Why has Scott Brown’s campaign been so successful?
Newt Gingrich: You know, this is an amazing country and every once in a while, the American people find a way to exert themselves without regard to the elites and without regard to whatever the established conventional wisdom is. I think this is going to be one of those periods. And I think what’s happened is, the Obama/Pelosi/Reed machine misread the meaning of the 2006 and 2008 elections. They went way too far to the left; they drove home a kind of authoritarian style of government that enraged people. And then they decided to pick a fight over healthcare that maximized the country’s sense of anxiety during a time when you have over 10% unemployment. All of that came together so that you have really, almost in a British bi-election sense. You have a national election being held in Massachusetts with resources spontaneously showing up from everywhere.
I saw a note this morning that Brown had raised $10 million on the internet in the last 10 days, which is, for a Senate race, I think clearly a record by a big margin. It’s because people spontaneously have moved to the sound of the guns and have said, here’s a place where I can send a signal to Washington to stop trying to make us into a socialist country. And I think you have a huge amount of energy behind Brown right now.
Question: What does Brown’s campaign say about the state of the Republican Party?
Newt Gingrich: Well the Republicans held the governorship for 16 straight years. Deval Patrick is the first Democratic Governor since before Bill Weld. And I think that it says that, if you’re seen as an independent person, you can win without being a Democrat, even in Massachusetts as we have Republican Governors right now in Vermont and in Rhode Island and in Connecticut. People forget, there’s a lot bigger base of potential Republicanism in New England than the current office holders at the federal level.
I think also it says that Brown, correctly wants to run – and we did this in 1994 in our Contract with America Campaign. We wanted every American of every background to be part of what we are doing, not just polarizing on a Republican/Democratic basis. My guess is that Brown is going to get between 15% and 20% of the Democrats, about 60% to 65% of the Independents, and about 85% of the Republicans. So, he will really have a very broad coalition.
Question: Is the southern presence in Republicanism isolating the party from the rest of the country?
Newt Gingrich: Well, I mean, first of all, I don’t think it was accurate in the ‘90’s. We worked very hard to sustain the New England and New York parts of the party and we were pretty successful at it. We were the first reelected majority since 1928 and that was in part because across the industrial Midwest and in the Northeast and the Pacific Coast, we fought very aggressively to sustain Republican victories.
I do think that the party became tone deaf and I think that tone deafness made it much harder to hold seats in the New England area and in places like New York and parts of the Pacific Coast. But I also think that there’s a natural cycle here. The Republicans were punished in 2006 and 2008 largely for performance failures. They now are not the issue. The issue now has become much faster than I thought it would, whether or not you really want a left-wing, what I would call a secular socialist movement running Washington. And it’s pretty clear that as the Republican failures fade, people are no longer focused on them, they’re not focused on a referendum on whether or not we need higher taxes and bigger bureaucracy and more left-wing values.
Question: How can Republicans succeed in the next election?
Newt Gingrich: I believe if we are the alternative party, not the opposition party, we have a chance to take the house in 2010, I aim to win a sweeping, decisive election in 2012, and we will not win that election as the opposition party, but we could win it as the alternative party. And frankly, Obama is showing you the danger of running as an opposition party, not an alternative party because he pretended to be a centrist who would accommodate many broad values when he ran as a candidate, he has since proven to be part of a machine, and as a result the disillusionment is much deeper than it would have been if he had campaigned openly and accurately on what he intended to do.
Question: Can the Republican Party put forth a positive agenda?
Newt Gingrich: Well, in ’94, we clearly won because we had a positive agenda. We had the largest one-party turnout increase in American history for an off year. We gained 9 million additional votes. The Democrats lost about a million votes. That was not a function of being negative. In New Jersey and in Virginia in 2009, the winning Republican candidates for Governor were both positive. Chris Christy ran on lower taxes and Charter Schools, carried counties, urban counties that no Republican had carried for a generation. Bob McDonald campaigned on a very positive campaign of lower taxes, more economic growth, developing energy resources. He got 59% of the vote in a Virginia which had given Obama 53% the year before. That’s a swing of 12 percentage points in one year.
Question: What notions of a positive Republican agenda do you see forming?
Newt Gingrich: Actually I do see significant steps in the right direction by Congressman John Boehner, the Republican Leader of the House and Eric Cantor, the Republican Whip and by Mitch McConnell and John Kyle and Walt Alexander and others in the Senate. I also see it in Governorships. It’s important to remember that this fall there will be, I think 36 gubernatorial races. Three out of four states in the country will be engaged in Governor races. And many of them are going to be very important positive agenda-setting moments. And the Republican Governor Association has a very positive agenda for the future.
But I also believe in the House and Senate that you’re going to see something like a new contract, or let’s say a set of 10 goals that will be very positive; cutting out fraud, moving to a balanced budget, reducing taxes, helping small business, placing American lives above the legal rights of terrorists. There will be a number of steps I think where you could have a very positive agenda by republicans for the fall campaign that would unify and bring together 70% or 80% of the country.
Question: Should conservatives refrain from addressing social issues today?
Newt Gingrich: Well you know, Brown is for marriage being between a man and a woman. Brown is against partial birth abortion. Brown had his biggest single fight with the current Attorney General over the question of whether or not doctors, as a matter of conscience, and nurses as a matter of conscience, could be coerced by the state into performing abortions even if they regard it as an act of murder. Brown was on the side of conscience and against the state have that kind of secular power. So, Brown is, in that sense, much closer to a traditional social conservative then people might think based on the news media coverage. I think similarly, if you look at Chris Christy, if you look at Bob McDonald, they’re both more conservative than you would have expected given the news media interpretation of the last few years.
I think what you have to have is a very balanced campaign. At the national level, you want to have a social conservatism, but you also want to have economic opportunity and economic growth and jobs and you also want to have a strong national security and homeland security plan. Balancing all three so that people see clearly that you represent a broad solution to the country’s needs strikes me as the key to success for 2010, and 2012.
Question: What will the election of Scott Brown mean for Democrats in Washington?
Newt Gingrich: If Teddy Kennedy’s Senate Seat in the middle of – at the peak of a healthcare debate is won by a Republican populace insurgent, I believe that will be psychologically as powerful as the Republican victory of 1994. It won’t be at a practical level as powerful because in 1994 we took over the House and Senate, but I think the effect in this city will be stunning. And I will be fascinated to see whether the Obama/Pelosi/Reed machine stops, takes a deep breath and decides to listen to the American People and modify what they are doing. Or whether they decide that they have to actually have to increase their toughness and increase their arbitrary authoritarian behavior because it will be clear that they don’t ram things through quickly that everything’s going to collapse. Remember, the results in Massachusetts are simply a part of a pattern that includes a Democratic incumbent in Arkansas being 17 points behind, a Democratic incumbent in Cincinnati being 17 points behind, a Democratic incumbent in Michigan being 7 points behind, Harry Reed himself being 10 points behind in Nevada. I mean, there is a potential tidal wave building that could shatter the Democratic Party for a generation.
Well, if the people of Massachusetts vote for a Republican populace Senator, then I don’t see how the healthcare bill can pass the Senate. If by healthcare bill you mean the Obama/Pelosi/Reed left-wing model. Could you pass a bi-partisan, transparent reasonably achieved health reform bill? Sure, but not this bill. You’d have to go back and start over. And I think that’s the first big test the Democrats are going to be faced with is, if the people of Massachusetts speak clearly and decisively and we’re not in some kind of Minnesota recount problem, then how do the Democrats avoid recognizing that the people of the United States – I mean if a state like Massachusetts votes like this, can you imagine where the rest of the country is?
Question: What is your ideal model of healthcare?
Newt Gingrich: I think everybody, certainly we at the Center for Health Transformation would like to see 305 million Americans with health insurance, or with some form of financial coverage. We would accept the libertarian argument that if you don’t want to buy health insurance, you could be allowed to post a bond or in some other way to be financial responsible, but we do think everybody should be in a position to have healthcare without having to rely on the state, or rely on charity.
Having said that, we don’t want a singer payer system, we don’t want a government dominated system, we don’t want a bureaucratically imposed system. We want a system where the individual and their doctor have a relationship that’s direct and where the individual has substantial choices and substantial opportunity to make responsible decisions.
Question: What is your organization working toward in this area?
Newt Gingrich: Well, we helped found the Center for Health Transformation to develop a new 21st century model of health and healthcare designed to save lives and save money. We believe you can save, for example, between $70 and $120 billion a year from fraud, from people who are crooks stealing money in Medicare and Medicaid. We believe you can get a dramatically better system by focusing first on the individual, getting them to be responsible for their health, getting them to be aware of their health, getting them to monitor and manage their health. And we think that you need fundamental payment reform to align incentives with what we say our values are in terms of keeping people healthy. We believe you need litigation reform, which has led to unnecessary expense because of defensive medicine.
So, we believe you could have a bi-partisan, transparent, openly achieved health reform bill. We’d be glad at the Center for Health Transformation to work on such a bill with the Obama Administration, but they’d have to give up their commitment to left-wing authoritarian, big government models and be willing to actually talk openly about reform rather than the kind of this direction they’ve been going in.
Question: How would you advise Obama in forming a more bi-partisan plan?
Newt Gingrich: There was a recent book that came out called The Pact, which talked about how Clinton and I had worked together and planned a whole series of major reforms. President Clinton came recently to Senator Trent Lott’s hanging of his portrait as the former Senate Majority Leader, and the three of us were together and President Clinton said, as part of his remarks, “The people will forget how much we got done together by being practical. And we could fight half the day and we could cooperate have the day. And we understood which half was which.” My first advice to the President would be, slow down, open up, invite the American People to participate.
It was an enormous mistake to allow Pelosi and Reed to write the stimulus package and to pass it without anybody who was elected having read it.
It was an enormous mistake to ram through a left-wing, high tax, energy bill in the House.
It’s a huge mistake to try to ram through health reform for one-sixth of the economy on a partisan basis with secret negotiations in the White House.
This country would love to have a bi-partisan, or tri-partisan, Democrat, Republican, and Independent effort out in the open to work together to solve our problems. No one will be totally comfortable. But it would be dramatically healthier for the country. It is possible.
It’s not possible as long as there is a Reed/Pelosi machine in charge of the Congress and it’s not possible as long as the President talks one way in public and acts another in private. And that’s why, the eight times he’s on videotape promising that C-Span would cover the negotiations and the fact that he has turned down C-Span’s offer to cover the negotiations is so devastating. If you say something once that might be an idea, if you say it eight times, that’s a promise. And I think the President’s got to decide, does he really want to spend the next three years governing in secret in a partisan way? Or does he want to fundamentally change and learn the lessons of the first year of his administration?
Question: How do you evaluate the government’s treatment of Wall Street banks?
Newt Gingrich: Well, the whole process is sick. You can’t have capitalism on the way up and socialism on the way down. You can’t have welfare for the rich and expect it to work. These guys – I said this a year ago when the former Chairman of Goldman Sachs was Secretary of the Treasury cheerfully passing a bill to bailout Goldman Sachs, which is what they did. Goldman Sachs got $13 billion, with a “B”, billion dollars. With no responsibility, no accountability, no involvement because of the way they designed the bailout. And this is being done all across Wall Street. You have brilliantly clever men who hire brilliantly clever lawyers to maximize their ability to rip off the taxpayer. Now, that’s why I am for smaller government. I was for letting these banks go bankrupt if necessary. I think bailing them out was a horrible idea. I don’t mind if they pay bonuses on the way up as long as they take risk on the way down. But the current system is sick, the government ought to get out of it, it ought to basically cut its ties to the banks, take back the money, and tell the banks you’re on your own, good luck.
But trying to figure out a way to create Sunday school morality among bank President’s strikes me as a dead loser. These people are in business to make money. They want the money. They’ll be glad to be attacked in the media as long as they take $25, $50, $100 million home. They think we’re silly because we don’t get what the game is. And I think that Geitner is part of this and I think the fact that the Democrats in the House just passed a bill which would have $4 Trillion set aside to bailout institutions in the future is a sign that nobody in Washington has learned anything. You want smaller institutions capable of surviving without government intervention. Period.
Question: What do you think of Obama’s proposed levy of these banks?
Newt Gingrich: You know, President Obama is continuing the liberal mythology that you can tax corporations and somehow customers won’t pay. This is a tax on customers; this is not a tax on banks. They are trying to solve the unsolvable. It’s like saying that what you want to have is you want to take all the water out of the vegetable soup. Well, then you don’t have vegetable soup. And the fact is, these are for-profit institutions. If we ought to have a tax frankly, the only way I’d ever vote for a tax like that would be if it had a matching tax cut on small business. Now, I might be interested in taxing the banks if I could then take the exact same number of dollars and put them into reducing the tax burden on small business. I have no interest in giving Obama and Pelosi and Reed more money to spend through bureaucracies. I don’t believe in trickle down bureaucracy, I don’t think it works, I think it corrupts the system and I think it makes America weaker and less safe.
Question: Should the government take a stance on banks that are “too big to fail”?
Newt Gingrich: Yeah. Yeah. Because the objective truth is that if you’re too big to fail, you’re too big to be managed. So, why do we have banks that are that big? And I think we ought to be pretty relentless in saying to investors and stockholders, you’re on your own. This is called capitalism. If you hire really stupid management and they do really stupid things, you’re going to lose a lot of money. So, you’re board of directors ought to really pay attention. But I think this idea that somehow we’re going to hire a bunch of smart bureaucrats to look over the smart bankers to keep both from making mistakes is just foolish. It’s just not – it won’t work, there is zero evidence that it will work. Look at the deal in which Fannie May and Freddie Mac, the two giant housing institutions are in trouble. I mean, those are government sponsored enterprises that have a single regulatory agency with 200 staff just to look at the two of them and it failed miserably. It didn’t pick up anything that was wrong.
Question: What policy measures should be taken to change these practices?
Newt Gingrich: The first thing I’d do is say – is cut them off from all the TARP and other kinds of money, I would also insist that they follow coherent, rational rules about bad debt. They would overnight cease to make a profit. I mean, the truth is, these banks are only showing a profit because the government is allowing them to carry bad loans and not have to take care of them. And so promptly in a spirit of totally bad citizenship, they decided to convert that extra money the government’s letting them keep into bonuses. And my point is just, why do you think people to got Wall Street? They go to Wall Street because the want to get rich. They work really hard, long hours because they want to get rich. You give them a chance to get rich they’re going to get rich. I don’t care how often you preach at them.
Question: How can we remedy America’s financial habits?
Newt Gingrich: Well, the most important single political slogan in the next quarter century is 2 + 2 = 4. I got that frankly from the Polish people who used it in their 10-year long struggle with the Polish dictatorship when Callista and I were doing the movie on John Paul II called, “Nine Days that Changed the World.”
Starting in 1979, the Polish people were in constant rebellion against the Soviet dictatorship. And they would say – they would put signs in their windows that said 2 + 2 = 4. Partly it came from George Orwell, who wrote in his novel, 1984, that the state torturer when he was torturing the innocent citizen said that, “If we tell you 2 + 2 = 5, it equals 5, and if we tell you 2 + 2 = 3, it equals 3.” And the citizen’s thinking, yeah, but what if it really equals 4? It also comes from Camus’ novel The Plague, in which he says, “There are times when a man can be killed for saying 2 + 2 = 4 because the authorities can’t stand the truth.”
And what I tell audiences is very simple. Here’s an American version of 2 + 2 = 4. I give them half of a sentence. If you can’t afford to buy a house – and then I stop, and they start giggling, and then someone else will say, “Rent,” or somebody else will say, “Don’t buy it.” And finally I’ll say, “How many of you agree that if you can’t afford to buy a house, don’t buy one?” Every hand goes up. And then I simply point out, for 25 years we’ve lied. For 25 years the official policy of the United States Government has been, if you can’t afford to buy a house, well you don’t need credit, you don’t need a down payment, you don’t need to pay on principal, we’ll give you a sub par interest, and guess what. If you do it to one individual and they go broke, it’s a personal tragedy, if you do it to a million people; It’s a bubble which collapses with national consequence. We had an IT bubble in 1999, we had a housing bubble in 2007, we had a Wall Street bubble in 2008. The fourth bubble is going to be big government. We have more government than we can afford, it is going to collapse, the sooner we start cutting it and the sooner we start replacing it, the better off we’re going to be. We need to get to a smaller, more effective, more modern government as rapidly as possible and every year that we delay, we give more debt to China and more debt to Saudi Arabia, and we guarantee that our children and grandchildren will be paying more taxes to pay interest to Riyadh and Beijing and less money to take home for their own pay.
Question: What are the implications of being in such massive debt to foreign countries?
Newt Gingrich: Well, that is enormously dangerous to have American debt held in huge volume by China and Saudi Arabia. It’s dangerous with the Saudi’s because you’re going to have more and more influence on behalf of a version of Islam which is very alien to the American system. It is dangerous with China because the legitimate interest of the Chinese government is very different than ours. And what are we going to do one morning in a diplomatic crisis if the Chinese announce they’re going to dump $2 Trillion of debt on the world market? So I think there are very profound reasons for us to be very concerned about a system in which we have Increasing American irresponsibility leading to massive deficits which end up with foreigners owning huge volumes of American debt which also means that the carrying capacity – If you try to pay for the interest on the debt, there are projections that by 2017, we will be paying more taxes for interest on the debt than for all of our national security costs combined. Now that is an irrational destructive and irresponsible position to be in.
Question: What can history teach us about the current state of America?
Newt Gingrich: Well, let’s say first of all, Toynbee in his study of history has one of his concepts the idea of challenge and response. He said that all successful civilizations are challenged. The ones that have long periods manage to respond in ways that overwhelm the challenge. I remember in the 1980’s, people were writing books about the decline of America. Japan was the number one superpower, there was a book about Japan as number one, there was a book about the emerging Japanese super state. And then one morning the Japanese bubble collapsed. They’ve never recovered from it.
We are the third largest country in the world in population. We are the largest country in the world in economic power. We are the largest country in the world in military power. We are the most successful integrator of cultures in human history. More people come from more places bringing more ideas and energy than any other country in the history of the world. With the recent Haitian earthquake, we’re reminded that there are a 1,200,000 Haitians who live in the United States.
In the Somalian problems in 1990 to 1994, the fact is ….who we were chasing in Somalia had a son who was a Marine Lance Corporal in Los Angeles. Every way you go across the planet, there are Afghans who are living in America, there are Romanians who live in America, there are Ethiopians who live in America. No other society has the capacity we have. If I was betting on the next 100 years, I think it will be a century of freedom, it will be a century in which America gets it’s act together, replaces the failed systems, gets back to work, rolls up it’s sleeves, and I fully expect that the world will decide that freedom, and the ability to work together productively is a lot more exciting than Chinese authoritarianism. And I would guess that we will in fact remain the leading symbol of how humans can work together for the next century. [00:28:51.01]
Question: What will happen to Obama if Republicans take over the House or Senate?
Newt Gingrich: We have no way of knowing what President Obama will do. I would say, from what I’ve seen so far, he’s more likely to become a cross between Lyndon Johnson and Jimmy Carter, further to the left than Carter, but probably with the tone deafness that Carter has. We have no evidence that he has Bill Clinton’s discipline and Clinton’s ability to shift. I mean, Clinton was a very practical Arkansas moderate who understood and had said for years that the Democratic Party was too far to the left. Obama was the left. He was the candidate of the left. He beat Hillary from the left. And we’ve seen governed for a year from the left. So, you’re asking him to change in very fundamental ways, and we have no evidence at the present time that he has either the inclination or the ability to have that scale of growth in office.
Recorded: January 20th, 2009
A conversation with the former Speaker of the House.
Once a week.
Subscribe to our weekly newsletter.
Since 1957, the world's space agencies have been polluting the space above us with countless pieces of junk, threatening our technological infrastructure and ability to venture deeper into space.
- Space debris is any human-made object that's currently orbiting Earth.
- When space debris collides with other space debris, it can create thousands more pieces of junk, a dangerous phenomenon known as the Kessler syndrome.
- Radical solutions are being proposed to fix the problem, some of which just might work. (See the video embedded toward the end of the article.)
In 1957, the Soviet Union launched a human-made object into orbit for the first time. It marked the dawn of the Space Age. But when Sputnik 1's batteries died and the aluminum satellite began lifelessly orbiting the planet, it marked the end of another era: the billions of years during which space was pristine.
Today, the space above Earth is the world's "largest garbage dump," according to NASA. It's littered with 8,000 tons of human-made junk, called space debris, left by space agencies over the past six decades.
The U.S. now tracks more than 25,000 pieces of space junk. And that's only the debris that ground-based radar technologies can track. The U.S. Space Surveillance Network estimates there could be more than 170 million pieces of space debris currently orbiting Earth, with the majority being tiny fragments smaller than 1 mm.
Space debris: Trashing a planet
Space debris includes all human-made objects, big and small, that are orbiting Earth but no longer serve a useful function. A brief inventory of known space junk includes: a spatula, a glove, a mirror, a bag filled with astronaut tools, spent rocket stages, stray bolts, paint chips, defunct spacecraft, and about 3,000 dead satellites — all of which are orbiting Earth at speeds of roughly 18,000 m.p.h.
By allowing space debris to accumulate unchecked, we could be building a prison that keeps us stranded on Earth for centuries.
Most space junk is floating in low Earth orbit (LEO), the region of space within an altitude of about 100 to 1,200 miles. LEO is also where most of the world's 3,000 satellites operate, powering our telecommunications, GPS technologies, and military operations.
"Millions of pieces of orbital debris exist in low Earth orbit (LEO) — at least 26,000 the size of a softball or larger that could destroy a satellite on impact; over 500,000 the size of a marble big enough to cause damage to spacecraft or satellites; and over 100 million the size of a grain of salt that could puncture a spacesuit," wrote NASA's Office of Inspector General Office of Audits.
If LEO becomes polluted with too much space junk, it could become treacherous for spacecraft, threatening not only our modern technological infrastructure, but also humanity's ability to venture into space at all.
By allowing space debris to accumulate unchecked, we could be building a prison that keeps us stranded on Earth for centuries.
An outsized problem
Space debris of any size poses grave threats to spacecraft. But tiny, untrackable micro-debris presents an especially dreadful problem: A paint fragment chipped off a spacecraft might not seem dangerous, but it careens through space at nearly 10 times the speed of a bullet, packing enough energy to puncture an astronaut's suit, crack a window of the International Space Station, and potentially destroy satellites.
Impacts with space debris are common. During the Space Shuttle era, NASA replaced an average of one to two shuttle windows per mission "due to hypervelocity impacts (HVIs) from space debris." To be sure, some space debris are natural micrometeoroids. But much of it is human-made, like the fragment that struck the starboard payload bay radiator of the STS-115 flight in 2006.
"The debris penetrated both walls of the honeycomb structure, and the shock wave from the penetration created a crack in the rear surface of the radiator 6.8 mm long," NASA wrote. "Scanning electron microscopy and energy dispersive X-ray detection analysis of residual material around the hole and in the interior of the radiator shows that the impactor was a small fragment of circuit board material."
The European Space Agency notes that any fragment of space debris larger than a centimeter could shatter a spacecraft into pieces.
Impact chip on the ISSESA
To dodge space junk, the International Space Station (ISS) has to conduct "avoidance maneuvers" a couple times every year. In 2014, for example, flight controllers decided to raise the ISS's altitude by half a mile to avoid collision with part of an old European rocket in its orbital path.
NASA has strict guidelines for how it decides to perform these maneuvers.
"Debris avoidance maneuvers are planned when the probability of collision from a conjunction reaches limits set in the space shuttle and space station flight rules," NASA wrote. "If the probability of collision is greater than 1 in 100,000, a maneuver will be conducted if it will not result in significant impact to mission objectives. If it is greater than 1 in 10,000, a maneuver will be conducted unless it will result in additional risk to the crew."
These precautionary measures are becoming increasingly necessary. In 2020, the ISS had to move three times to avoid potential collisions. One of the latest close-calls came with such little warning that astronauts were instructed to take shelter in the Russian segment of the space station, in order to be closer to their Soyuz MS-16 spacecraft, which serves as an escape pod in case of an emergency.
The Kessler syndrome
The hazards of space debris grow exponentially over time. That's because of a problem that NASA scientist Donald J. Kessler outlined in 1978. The so-called Kessler syndrome states that as space becomes increasingly packed with spacecraft and debris, collisions become more likely. And because each collision would create more debris, it could trigger a chain reaction of collisions — potentially to the point where near-Earth space becomes a shrapnel field through which safe travel is impossible.
A paint fragment chipped off a spacecraft might not seem dangerous, but it careens through space at nearly 10 times the speed of a bullet, packing enough energy to puncture an astronaut's suit, crack a window of the International Space Station, and potentially destroy satellites.
The Kessler syndrome may already be playing out. Perhaps it began with the first known case of a spacecraft being severely damaged by artificial space debris, which occurred in 1996 when the French spy satellite Cerise was struck by a piece of an old European Ariane rocket. The collision tore off a 13-foot segment of the satellite.
The next major space debris incident occurred in 2007 when China conducted an anti-satellite missile test in which the nation destroyed one of its own weather satellites, triggering international criticism and creating more than 3,000 pieces of trackable space debris, most of which was still in orbit ten years after the explosion.
Then, in 2009, an unexpected collision between communications satellites — the active Iridium 33 and the defunct Russian Cosmos-2251 — produced at least 2,000 large fragments of space debris and as many as 200,000 smaller pieces, according to NASA. About half of all space debris currently orbiting Earth came from the Iridium-Cosmos collision and China's missile test.
There's more. Russia's BLITS satellite was spun out of its orbital path in 2013 after being struck by a piece of space debris suspected to have come from China's 2007 missile test; the European Space Agency's Copernicus Sentinel-1A satellite was struck by a tiny particle in 2016; and a window of the ISS was hit by a small fragment that same year.
As nations and private companies plan to send more satellites into orbit, collisions and impacts could soon become more common.
The promise and peril of satellite mega-constellations
Space organizations have recently begun launching satellites into low Earth orbit at an unprecedented pace. The goal is to create "mega-constellations" of satellites that provide high-quality internet access to virtually all parts of the planet.
Internet-providing satellites have existed for years, but they're typically expensive and provide slower service than land-based internet infrastructure. That's mainly because it can take a relatively long time for a signal to travel from the satellite to the user due to the high altitudes at which many of these satellites float above us in geostationary orbit.
China and companies like SpaceX, OneWeb, and Amazon aim to solve this problem by launching thousands of satellites into lower orbits in order to reduce signal latency, or the time it takes for the signal to travel to and from the satellite. But some space experts worry satellite mega-constellations could create more space debris.
"We face entirely new challenges as hundreds of satellites are launched every month now — more than we used to launch in a year," Thomas Schildknecht of the International Astronomical Union said at a European Space Agency conference in April. "The mega-constellations are producing huge risks of collisions. We need more stringent rules for traffic management in space and international mechanisms to ensure enforcement of the rules."
A 2017 study funded by the European Space Agency found that the deployment of satellite mega-constellations into low Earth orbit could increase the number of catastrophic collisions by 50 percent. Still, it remains unclear whether sending more satellites into space will necessarily cause more collisions.
SpaceX, for example, claims that Starlink satellites aren't at significant risk of collision because they're equipped with automated collision-avoidance propulsion systems. However, this system seemed to fail in 2019 when a Starlink satellite had a close call with a European science satellite named Aeolus. The company later said it had fixed the bug.
A batch of 60 Starlink test satellites stacked atop a Falcon 9 rocket.SpaceX
Currently, there are no strict international rules governing the deployment and management of satellite mega-constellations. But there are some international efforts to curb space debris risks.
The most concerted effort is the Inter-Agency Space Debris Coordination Committee (IADC), a forum that comprises 13 of the world's space agencies, including those of the U.S., Russia, China, and Japan. The committee aims "to exchange information on space debris research activities between member space agencies, to facilitate opportunities for cooperation in space debris research, to review the progress of ongoing cooperative activities, and to identify debris mitigation options."
The IADC's Space Debris Mitigation Guidelines list three broad goals:
1. Preventing on-orbit break-ups
2. Removing spacecraft from the densely populated orbit regions when they reach the end of their mission
3. Limiting the objects released during normal operations
But even though the world's space agencies recognize the gravity of the space debris problem, they're reluctant to act because of an incentives-based dilemma.
Space debris: A classic tragedy of the commons
Space debris is everyone's problem, but no one entity is obligated to solve it. It's a tragedy of the commons — an economic scenario in which individuals with access to a shared and scarce resource (space) act in their own best interest (spend the least amount of money). Left unchecked, the shared resource is vulnerable to depletion or corruption.
For example, the U.S. by itself could develop a novel method for removing space debris, which, if successful, would benefit all organizations with assets in space. But the odds of this happening are slim because of a game-theoretical dilemma.
"[In space debris removal] each stakeholder has an incentive to delay its actions and wait for others to respond. This makes the space debris removal setting an interesting strategic dilemma. As all actors share the same environment, actions by one have a potential immediate and future impact on all others. This gives rise to a social dilemma in which the benefits of individual investment are shared by all while the costs are not. This encourages free-riders, who reap the benefits without paying the costs. However, if all involved parties reason this way, the resulting inaction may prove to be far worse for all involved. This is known in the game theory literature as the tragedy of the commons."
Similar to trying to curb climate change, there's no clear answer on how to best incentivize nations to mitigate space debris. (For what it's worth, the game theoretical model in the 2018 study found that a centralized solution — e.g., one where a single actor makes decisions on mitigating space debris, perhaps on behalf of a multinational coalition — is less costly than a decentralized solution.)
Although space organizations have been slow to act, many have been exploring ways to remove space junk from orbit and prevent new debris from forming.
Cleaning up space debris
Space organizations have proposed and experimented with many ways to remove debris from space. Although the techniques vary, most agree on strategy: get rid of the big stuff first.
That's because collisions involving large objects would create lots of new debris. So, removing big debris first would simultaneously clean up low Earth orbit and slow down the phenomenon of cascading collisions described by the Kessler syndrome.
To clean up low Earth orbit, space organizations have proposed using:
- Electrodynamic tethers: In 2017, the Japanese Aerospace Exploration Agency attempted to remove space debris by outfitting a cargo ship with an electrodynamic tether — essentially a fishing net made of stainless steel and aluminium. The craft then tried to "catch" space debris with the aim of dragging it into lower orbit, where it would eventually crash to Earth. The experiment failed.
- Ultra-thin nets: NASA's Innovative Advanced Concepts program has funded research for a project that would deploy extremely thin nets designed to wrap around space debris and drag them down to Earth's atmosphere.
- "Laser brooms": Since the 1990s, space researchers have proposed using ground-based lasers to strategically heat one side of a piece of space debris, which would change its orbit so that it re-enters Earth's atmosphere sooner. Because the laser systems would be based on Earth, this strategy could prove to be relatively affordable.
- Drag sails: As a relatively passive way to accelerate the de-orbit of space junk, NASA and other space organizations have been exploring the viability of attaching sails to space junk that would help guide debris back to Earth. These sails could either be packed within new satellites, to be deployed once the satellites are no longer useful, or attached to existing space junk.
Illustration of Brane Craft Phase II, which would use thin nets to capture space debris.Siegfried Janson via NASA
But perhaps one of the most promising solutions for space debris is the ESA-funded ClearSpace-1 mission. Set to launch in 2025, ClearSpace-1 intends to be the first mission that successfully removes space debris from orbit. The goal is to launch a satellite into orbit and rendezvous with the upper stage of Europe's Vega launcher, which was left in space after a 2013 flight.
ClearSpace-1 satellite using its robotic arm to capture space debrisClearSpace-1
Once the satellite meets up with the debris, it will try to capture the junk with a robotic arm and then perform a controlled atmospheric reentry. The task will be challenging, in part because space junk tumbles as it flies above Earth, meaning the satellite will have to match its movements in order to safely capture it.
Freethink recently spoke to the ClearSpace-1 team to get a better understanding of the mission and its challenges.
Catching the Most Dangerous Thing in Space Freethink via youtube.com
But not all space debris removal strategies center on technology. A 2020 paper published in PNAS argued that imposing taxes on each satellite in orbit would be the most effective way to clean up space. Called "orbital use fees," the plan would charge space organizations an annual fee of roughly $235,000 per each satellite that's in orbit. The fee would, in theory, incentivize nations and companies to declutter space over time.
The main hurdle of orbital-use fees is getting all of the world's space organizations to agree to such a plan. If they do, it could help eliminate the tragedy of the commons aspect of space debris and potentially quadruple the value of the space industry by 2040.
"The costly buildup of debris and satellites in low-Earth orbit is fundamentally a problem of incentives — satellite operators currently lack the incentives to factor into their launch decisions the collision risks their satellites impose on other operators," the researchers wrote. "Our analysis suggests that correcting these incentives, via an OUF, could have substantial economic benefits to the satellite industry, and failing to do so could have substantial and escalating economic costs."
No matter the solution, cleaning up space debris will be a complex and expensive challenge that requires a coordinated, international effort. If the global community wants to maintain modern technological infrastructure and venture deeper into space, conducting business as usual isn't an option.
"Imagine how dangerous sailing the high seas would be if all the ships ever lost in history were still drifting on top of the water," Jan Wörner, European Space Agency (ESA) director general, said in a statement. "That is the current situation in orbit, and it cannot be allowed to continue."
It uses radio waves to pinpoint items, even when they're hidden from view.
"Researchers have been giving robots human-like perception," says MIT Associate Professor Fadel Adib. In a new paper, Adib's team is pushing the technology a step further. "We're trying to give robots superhuman perception," he says.
The researchers have developed a robot that uses radio waves, which can pass through walls, to sense occluded objects. The robot, called RF-Grasp, combines this powerful sensing with more traditional computer vision to locate and grasp items that might otherwise be blocked from view. The advance could one day streamline e-commerce fulfillment in warehouses or help a machine pluck a screwdriver from a jumbled toolkit.
The research will be presented in May at the IEEE International Conference on Robotics and Automation. The paper's lead author is Tara Boroushaki, a research assistant in the Signal Kinetics Group at the MIT Media Lab. Her MIT co-authors include Adib, who is the director of the Signal Kinetics Group; and Alberto Rodriguez, the Class of 1957 Associate Professor in the Department of Mechanical Engineering. Other co-authors include Junshan Leng, a research engineer at Harvard University, and Ian Clester, a PhD student at Georgia Tech.Play video
As e-commerce continues to grow, warehouse work is still usually the domain of humans, not robots, despite sometimes-dangerous working conditions. That's in part because robots struggle to locate and grasp objects in such a crowded environment. "Perception and picking are two roadblocks in the industry today," says Rodriguez. Using optical vision alone, robots can't perceive the presence of an item packed away in a box or hidden behind another object on the shelf — visible light waves, of course, don't pass through walls.
But radio waves can.
For decades, radio frequency (RF) identification has been used to track everything from library books to pets. RF identification systems have two main components: a reader and a tag. The tag is a tiny computer chip that gets attached to — or, in the case of pets, implanted in — the item to be tracked. The reader then emits an RF signal, which gets modulated by the tag and reflected back to the reader.
The reflected signal provides information about the location and identity of the tagged item. The technology has gained popularity in retail supply chains — Japan aims to use RF tracking for nearly all retail purchases in a matter of years. The researchers realized this profusion of RF could be a boon for robots, giving them another mode of perception.
"RF is such a different sensing modality than vision," says Rodriguez. "It would be a mistake not to explore what RF can do."
RF Grasp uses both a camera and an RF reader to find and grab tagged objects, even when they're fully blocked from the camera's view. It consists of a robotic arm attached to a grasping hand. The camera sits on the robot's wrist. The RF reader stands independent of the robot and relays tracking information to the robot's control algorithm. So, the robot is constantly collecting both RF tracking data and a visual picture of its surroundings. Integrating these two data streams into the robot's decision making was one of the biggest challenges the researchers faced.
"The robot has to decide, at each point in time, which of these streams is more important to think about," says Boroushaki. "It's not just eye-hand coordination, it's RF-eye-hand coordination. So, the problem gets very complicated."
The robot initiates the seek-and-pluck process by pinging the target object's RF tag for a sense of its whereabouts. "It starts by using RF to focus the attention of vision," says Adib. "Then you use vision to navigate fine maneuvers." The sequence is akin to hearing a siren from behind, then turning to look and get a clearer picture of the siren's source.
With its two complementary senses, RF Grasp zeroes in on the target object. As it gets closer and even starts manipulating the item, vision, which provides much finer detail than RF, dominates the robot's decision making.
RF Grasp proved its efficiency in a battery of tests. Compared to a similar robot equipped with only a camera, RF Grasp was able to pinpoint and grab its target object with about half as much total movement. Plus, RF Grasp displayed the unique ability to "declutter" its environment — removing packing materials and other obstacles in its way in order to access the target. Rodriguez says this demonstrates RF Grasp's "unfair advantage" over robots without penetrative RF sensing. "It has this guidance that other systems simply don't have."
RF Grasp could one day perform fulfilment in packed e-commerce warehouses. Its RF sensing could even instantly verify an item's identity without the need to manipulate the item, expose its barcode, then scan it. "RF has the potential to improve some of those limitations in industry, especially in perception and localization," says Rodriguez.
Adib also envisions potential home applications for the robot, like locating the right Allen wrench to assemble your Ikea chair. "Or you could imagine the robot finding lost items. It's like a super-Roomba that goes and retrieves my keys, wherever the heck I put them."
The research is sponsored by the National Science Foundation, NTT DATA, Toppan, Toppan Forms, and the Abdul Latif Jameel Water and Food Systems Lab (J-WAFS).
A 19th-century surveying mistake kept lumberjacks away from what is now Minnesota's largest patch of old-growth trees.
- In 1882, Josias R. King made a mess of mapping Coddington Lake, making it larger than it actually is.
- For decades, Minnesota loggers left the local trees alone, thinking they were under water.
- Today, the area is one of the last remaining patches of old-growth forest in the state.
Vanishingly rare, but it exists: a patch of Minnesota forest untouched by the logger's axe.Credit: Dan Alosso on Substack and licensed under CC-BY-SA
The trees here tower a hundred feet above the forest floor — a ceiling as high as in prehistory and vanishingly rare today. That's because no logger's axe has ever touched these woods.
Pillars of the green cathedral
As you walk among the giant pillars of this green cathedral, you might think you're among the redwood trees of California. But those are 1,500 miles (2,500 km) away. No, these are the red and white pines of the "Lost Forty" in Minnesota. This is the largest single surviving patch of old-growth forest in the state and a fair stretch beyond. And it's all thanks to a surveying error.
Despite its name, the Lost Forty Scientific and Natural Area (SNA) is actually 144 acres (0.58 km2) in total. Still, it's an easily overlooked part of the Chippewa National Forest, which sprawls across 666,000 acres (2,700 km2) of north-central Minnesota. And that – being easily overlooked – is kind of this area's superpower.
In the 1820s, when European-Americans arrived in what is now Minnesota, they found about 20 million acres (80,000 km2) of prairie and 30 million acres (120,000 km2) of forest. Two centuries on, both ecosystems largely have been depleted. Fewer than 100,000 acres (400 km2) of natural prairie remain, and fewer than 18 million acres (73,000 km2) of forest.
And today's woods are different. They're not just younger; the original pine stands have been harvested and largely replaced with aspen and birch.
To the moon and back
White pine especially was in heavy demand during the lumbering boom that had Minnesota in its grip by the 1840s — a boom driven by an insatiable demand for building materials and supercharged by the steam that powered the saws and the rails that transported the goods to market.
The two decades flanking the turn of the 20th century were the golden age of lumbering in Minnesota. At any given time, 20,000 lumberjacks were at work in the woods, a further 20,000 in the sawmills, and another 20,000 in other lumber-related industries.
Production peaked in the year 1900, with over 2.3 billion board-feet (5.4 million m3) of lumber harvested from the state's forests. That was enough to build 600,000 two-story houses or a boardwalk nine feet (2.7 m) wide, circling Earth along the equator. From then on, yields declined, albeit slightly at first. By 1910, however, the first lumber operations started packing up and moving on to the Pacific Northwest and elsewhere.
Minnesota's era of Big Timber symbolically came to an end with the closure of the Virginia and Rainy Lake Lumber Company in 1929. At that time, a century's worth of lumbering in Minnesota had produced 68 billion board-feet (160 million m3) of pine — enough to fill a line of boxcars all the way to the moon and halfway back again.
Now spool back a few decades. It's 1882, and the Public Land Survey is measuring, mapping, and quantifying the wilderness of northern Minnesota — and its as yet unharvested north woods. Setting out from the small settlement of Grand Rapids, Josias Redgate King leads a three-man survey team 40 miles north, into the backwoods.
Mapping error becomes cartographic fact
Their job, specifically, is to chart the area between Moose and Coddington Lakes. And they mess up. Perhaps it's the lousy November weather, the desolate swampy terrain, or both. But they make a serious mistake: their survey stretches Coddington Lake half a mile further northwest than it actually exists. As happens surprisingly often with mapping mistakes, the error becomes cartographic fact, undisputed for decades.
The area is marked on all maps as being under water and is therefore excluded from the considerations of logging companies. Only in 1960 is the area re-surveyed and the error corrected. But by then, as we have seen, Big Timber has moved on from the Gopher State.
Map of the "Lost Forty" SNA (top right). Bordering it on the south is the Chippewa National Forest Unique Biological Area. Credit: Minnesota Department of Natural Resources
Incidentally, Josias R. King was more than the mismapper of Coddington Lake. He has another, and rather better, claim to fame. When the Civil War broke out, Minnesota was the first state to offer volunteers to fight for the Union. At Fort Snelling, Mr. King rushed to the front of a line of men waiting to sign up.
So it was said, with some justification, that he was the first volunteer for the Union in all of the country. During the war, he attained the rank of lieutenant colonel. After, he returned to his civilian job, surveying. Because of his credentials as the Union's first volunteer, he was asked to pose for the face of the bronze soldier on the Civil War monument which was unveiled at St. Paul's Summit Park in 1903.
The loggers' loss is nature's gain
But back to the Lost Forty. The loggers' loss — hence the name — is actually nature's gain. The SNA's crowning glory, literally, is nearly 32 acres of designated old-growth red pine and white pine forest, in two stands, partially extending into the Chippewa National Forest proper. (In fact, much of the mismapped area seems to fall within the Chippewa National Forest Unique Biological Area adjacent to the Lost Forty.) Old-growth forests represent less than 2 percent — and designated old-growth forests less than 0.25 percent — of all of Minnesota's forests.
The oldest pine trees in the Lost Forty are between 300 and 400 years old, close to their maximum natural life span, which is up to 500 years. Similar pines in other parts of the National Forest are harvested at between 80 and 150 years for pulp and lumber. As a result, the pines in the Lost Forty are not only higher than most of the surrounding woods but also bigger with a diameter of between 22 and 48 inches (55 to 122 cm). One of the biggest has a circumference of 115 inches (2.9 m).
With their craggy bark, massive trunks, and dizzying height, these trees look like the ancient beings they are. And they exist in a cluster the size of which is unique for the Midwest. There's nothing lost about these trees; in fact, it's rather the reverse. Perhaps the area should more precisely be called the "Last Forty."
At 52 feet, only half as high as an old-growth white pine: Josias R. King's likeness atop the Soldier's Monument in Summit Park, St. Paul.Credit: Library of Congress
Get a good look at the Lost Forty in this video of the local hiking trail.
Strange Maps #1084
Got a strange map? Let me know at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Is working from home the ultimate liberation or the first step toward an even unhappier "new normal"?
- The Great Resignation is an idea proposed by Professor Anthony Klotz that predicts a large number of people leaving their jobs after the COVID pandemic ends and life returns to "normal."
- French philosopher Michel Foucault argued that by establishing what is and is not "normal," we are exerting a kind of power by making people behave a certain way.
- If working from home becomes the new normal, we must be careful that it doesn't give way to a new lifestyle that we hate even more than the office.
You wake up, you put on your work clothes, and you go to the office. You sit behind a desk, or in some designated space, and you work until the clock says it's over. This is what life is like for the vast majority of people. That is, until COVID came along. Then, everything changed.
Recently, an interesting idea has emerged called the "Great Resignation." This is a phenomenon that Professor Anthony Klotz of Texas A&M University has predicted will happen when people are asked, or told, to return to their offices. Klotz argues that, when we're all forced back into the old reality of the commute, a nine-to-five job, and cubicle life, there will be a "Great Resignation" among the workforce.
The argument is that in times of uncertainty and insecurity — like during a global pandemic — people behave conservatively. They'll stay put. But once things "normalize" again, we ought to expect employees to head for the exits.
But why? What has changed? Why has working from home made us so dissatisfied with our previously normal lives? Other than the comfort and convenience of working from home, one explanation might involve the concept of "normalization," a topic that fascinated French philosopher Michel Foucault.
The power of normal people
Foucault argued that we often spend an inordinate amount of time trying to be normal. We must dress the same way as everyone else. We must talk about the same things. We must work just like everyone else works. It's hugely important that things are normal. But, behind all of this, is a power dynamic that many of us are simply unaware of — and unconsciously unhappy about.
Someone, somewhere, must define what is "normal." It is then for the rest of us to bend over backward to fit into this narrow mold. To be powerful, then, is to say, "Do this, otherwise everyone will call you weird." Power is to hold the hoops everyone else must jump through. It's what Foucault describes as "normalizing power."
COVID was a wake-up call to the abnormality of modern work
Let's apply Focault's normalization concept to the modern workplace. Accepted wisdom had it that the best — and really, the only way — to work was in an office, usually downtown, far away from where we live. We were told this is where collaboration and creativity occur. Largely unchallenged, this "normal" functioned for decades, and we all obeyed.
We had to wake up at the crack of dawn to get ready for work. We had to travel in clogged and joyless commutes. We had to eat ready-packaged lunches behind our too-small desks. We had to sit through meetings in "good posture" ergonomic chairs that wouldn't be out of place in the Spanish Inquisition. Then we had to travel back home in yet another clogged and joyless commute. And we did this day after day after day.
Then COVID came along and revealed just how artificial, unnecessary, and abnormal it all is. It's as if someone ripped a blindfold off of society. We have laptops, wi-fi, and 5G (at least when people aren't burning the towers down). Many of us were just as productive — if not more so — than during the "normal" pre-COVID era. We don't need to be in an office. We don't need to waste countless hours of our lives sitting in traffic.
While the idea of a Great Resignation is quite appealing right now, we should be careful the "new normal" isn't so much worse.
Even better, people got to spend more time with their families, enjoy long and restful breaks, and have space to pursue their hobbies. In short, people like not going to an office. And, as Klotz argues, when companies see this dissatisfaction — this Great Resignation — they're going to ask some revolutionary questions, like, "Do you want to come back full time? Work remotely? In-office three days a week? Four days? One day?"
The silver lining to the COVID pandemic is that it has made us re-examine what "normal" is.
Beware the new normal
Of course, the idea of a nine-to-five office job was not established by some moustache-twirling villain just to satisfy his sadistic whims. It came about because people thought that was the most effective and productive way to operate.
People do need direct human contact, and it's often easier and more productive to speak to a colleague next to you or walk across an office to ask for some help. Remote-working software like Zoom is indeed convenient, but can a company honestly say that it's as efficient as working in an office?
What's more, there's a particularly pernicious sting in what Foucault argued. It's something that ought to slow any would-be Great Resignation. This is the idea that there likely will always be some kind of normal.
While COVID has revealed the office for the normalized power play that it is, what's to say what the next "normal" will be? Let's say that working from home becomes the new normal. Will we be expected to attend Zoom meetings at any hour of the day or answer text messages at midnight? Might cameras be used to monitor our every movement? Might software check that we're working at the right pace and in the right way?
While the idea of a Great Resignation is quite appealing right now, we should be careful the "new normal" isn't so much worse.