Is this Republican presidential campaign wild or what? It says something about this wacky presidential primary season that the idea dismissed most quickly as being crazy has in fact already been advanced by a former Princeton physics professor and championed for years by an institute originally based right here in the heart of Einstein’s Alley.

But first, for those of you not following this circus, a few words about the, um, candidates:

Mitt Romney. Suffice it to say that Romney — changing his positions more quickly than a fashion model — defies description for the time being. If and when he wins the nomination, he will slide back to the middle of the road, the moderate man from Massachusetts running against the big spending, ever-taxing, left-leaning liberal Obama. Some Democrats believe that such a massive flip-flop will kill Romney’s chances in the general election. I doubt it because — for most voters — Mittens’ wackiness will seem mild in comparison to his primary opponents.

Ron Paul. Bring all the troops home, stop the wars, and save trillions of dollars of spending. And while you’re at it, let people take care of their own healthcare. When Paul was a practicing doctor back in the 1960s, he reminisces, there was no Medicare and everyone got along just fine. Those indeed were the good old days, when there was no bypass surgery or angioplasty to save your life if you had heart disease, or knee or hip replacements to keep you mobile and out of the nursing home, or high-powered drugs to stave off cancer.

Of course no one complained about healthcare — because they were dead.

Rick Santorum. Although he has had plenty of wacky moments on the campaign trail, his looniest has to be his unrelenting campaign against not only abortion but also contraception. As he said at one point, “some Christians may say it’s OK,” but contraception “is not OK. It’s a license to do things of a sexual nature that are counter to the way things are supposed to be.”

Santorum walks the walk — he and his wife have had eight children, one of whom died at birth and another of whom has a genetic disorder and whose condition required Santorum to leave the Florida campaign a few days before primary day. You can applaud his values, feel compassion for him and his family. But, when he moves from sharing his beliefs about what he should do to telling you what you should do, that crosses the line of wackiness.

And — no surprise — it is Santorum who rails against Iran and the threat of Sharia law. Now that’s just plain wild.

Newt Gingrich. It was in Florida, naturally, on the edge of the space coast, where Gingrich made his self-described “grandiose” proposal to put a colony on the moon by the year 2020, the last year of his second term. Crazy in this time of fiscal austerity, said his critics. Romney said that if one of his business executives came to him with such a wacky idea he would fire him on the spot.

Gingrich compared it in boldness to John Kennedy’s man on the moon proclamation in 1961. But Newt didn’t read his history book so carefully. JFK’s initiative came in the middle of the space race with the Soviet Union, just four years after the humiliation of Sputnik. And he might have sounded a little more realistic if he had referenced the work of Princeton’s Gerry O’Neill and the Space Studies Institute that he founded here (and which has since downsized but still exists in Mojave, California, and lists Freeman Dyson of the Institute for Advanced Study as a board member — www.ssi.org).

The lesson of O’Neill and the SSI is that space exploration will not happen overnight or even in a two-term presidential reign. I interviewed O’Neill in 1977, the same year as his book, “The High Frontier,” was published and the year in which the Space Studies Institute was founded.

The idea sprang from a freshman physics course, organized around the question: “Is the surface of the planet Earth really the right place for an expanding technological civilization?” O’Neill began looking at space as a place to solve some looming problems: “Faced with a set of constraints that affect us all — energy shortages, pollution, waste, growing populations — I was led to look for the simplest way of solving all the problems at once,” O’Neill told me.

Given the abundance of natural resources on the moon, O’Neill’s plan would have started with “space manufacturing” involving at first around 1,000 space pioneers to build satellite solar power stations that would beam electricity back to Earth by microwave.

O’Neill died in 1992 at the age of 65. But others continue to advocate for smart use of space resources. After Gingrich’s proposal they came out of the woodwork to provide some practical advice, chiefly to be open to an international approach and to resist tying any projects such as this to anyone’s political future.

E.D. Kain, writing for the Forbes magazine website, may have stated it best: “I defend the notion of big ideas and space exploration — and yes, even Newt Gingrich’s advocacy of these things. Though I am not personally a fan of the former Speaker, I can’t help but enjoy this one moment of optimism in a campaign otherwise defined, like so many others, mostly by its negativity.

“Technology has many powers. One of them is to make us all children again from time to time.” Imagine: Newt Gingrich as a young, idealistic dreamer. Now that’s really wild.

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