Space policy made a cameo appearance in Monday night’s Republican presidential debate in New Hampshire, with former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich arguing for greater privatization of the space program while former Minnesota governor Tim Pawlenty said that the space program should be “refocused” but not eliminated.
The discussion was kicked off by a question about the impending retirement of the space shuttle and that, in the words of WMUR-TV’s Jean Mackin, “President Obama effectively killed government-run spaceflight to the International Space Station and wants to turn it over to private companies.” Thus, she asked, “what role should the government play in future space exploration?”
Gingrich, to whom the question was directed, responded:
Well, sadly—and I say this sadly because I’m a big fan of going into space, and I actually worked to get the shuttle program to survive at one point—NASA has become an absolute case study in why bureaucracy can’t innovate. If you take all the money we spent at NASA since we landed on the Moon, and you apply that money for incentives for the private sector, we would today probably have a permanent station on the Moon, three or four permanent stations in space, a new generation of lift vehicles, and instead, what we’ve had is bureaucracy after bureaucracy after bureaucracy, and failure after failure. I think it’s a tragedy, because younger Americans ought to have the excitement of thinking that they, too, could be part of reaching out to a new frontier.
You know, you had asked earlier, John [King, the moderator], about this idea of limits because we’re a developed country. We’re not a developed country. The scientific future is going to open up and we’re at the beginning of a whole new cycle of extraordinary opportunities, and unfortunately NASA is standing in the way of it, when NASA ought to be getting out of the way and encouraging the private sector.
CNN’s King then asked if any of the other candidates wanted to weigh in with a different opinion about NASA’s future, someone who wanted “the government to stay in the lead here when it comes to manned spaceflight.” After a brief pause, Pawlenty stepped in with, “I think the space program has played a vital role for the United States of America.” “Can we afford it going forward?” asked King. Pawlenty’s answer:
In the context of our budget challenges it can be refocused and reprioritized, but I don’t think we should be eliminating the space program. We can partner with private providers to get more economies of scale, and scale it back, but I don’t think we should eliminate the space program.
That comment prompted a rebuttal from a vexed Gingrich:
John, you mischaracterized me. I didn’t say end the space program. We built the transcontinental railroads without a national department of railroads. I said you can get into space faster, better, more effectively, more creatively, if you decentralized it, got out of Washington, and cut out the bureaucracy. It’s not about getting rid of the space program, it’s about getting to a real space program that works.
Just before the debate moved on, former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney weighed in with a comment tangentially related, at best, to the question:
I think fundamentally there are some people—and most of them are Democrats, but not all—who really believe that the government knows how to do things better than the private sector.
For those who have been following Gingrich, his comments are not that surprising: he has been supportive of private sector ventures over big government programs in the past, most notably when, last February, he and former congressman Bob Walker praised the White House for its “brave reboot” of NASA. Romney’s comment didn’t add much to the discussion, although he already has a track record from the 2008 campaign, where he said he supported the Vision for Space Exploration but declined to promise additional funding for NASA until he studied the issue more; he dropped out of the campaign before he could elaborate on that. Pawlenty, though, had been more of a blank slate on space topics before the debate. His comments suggested a willingness to support public-private partnerships in space, although not to the same degree as Gingrich.
The video of that portion of the debate (except for Romney’s concluding comment) is below: