In an op-ed Wednesday in the Orlando Sentinel, former White House and Pentagon official Douglas MacKinnon argued that former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich was the only Republican presidential candidate with a “passion” for the space program. Gingrich, he said, “does want the United States to once again become the pre-eminent nation in space”. (Going perhaps a little overboard, MacKinnon worried about China “as it plans lunar colonies, while having unimpeded access to our strategic assets in low and geosynchronous orbit.” China hasn’t expressed any serious plans for lunar colonies, nor is it clear from his essay how the Chinese will have “unimpeded access” to American satellites.) Former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney’s previous criticism of Gingrich’s visions of lunar colonies was, MacKinnon argued, a “predictable cheap shot” that “spoke volumes.”
MacKinnon’s praise of Gingrich’s views about space exploration is not entirely uncritical, though. In the op-ed MacKinnon cites “sometimes inconvenient evidence of Gingrich being on both sides of an issue”, in this case, the administration’s current human space exploration policy. He notes that Gingrich, along with former congressman Bob Walker, praised the administration’s decision to transfer crew transportation to low Earth orbit in a Washington Times op-ed in February 2010. However, MacKinnon says that, speaking in Orlando on October 12, Gingrich called “Obama’s decision to shut down the program a disaster and ‘a stupid move.’”
MacKinnon doesn’t provide details about exactly what Gingrich said, but it appears to be a reference to this interview with Central Florida News 13 on that day. The video of the interview, though, suggests a somewhat different assessment of the administration’s plans than what MacKinnon claims. After an off-camera reporter asks Gingrich, somewhat imprecisely, to “tell us your thoughts on the closing of the manned space program”, he replied:
I think it’s a disaster. Look, I grew up with the space program. I wrote a book in 1984, called Window of Opporutunity, where I outlined the size of the space program we ought to have. I think it is an absolute example of government bureaucracy run amok that we have spent this much money and we are without an ability to get into space. I think that we frankly ought to right now have a crash program, put up a big prize, challenge the private sector, and get back into space within two years, and in an aggressive way. We ought to set a goal of getting to the Moon, getting permanently on Mars. We just did a movie called A City Upon a Hill in which we have one of the original astronauts talk about the fact that we ought to be going to Mars. We have bureaucratized, dumbed-down, red-taped, and crushed the space program under government bureaucracy. We ought to liberate it and get back to having the kind of launch program that would not only bring jobs to Florida, but would put young Americans back studying, because they would have a chance to go out into space in their lifetime.
Gingrich doesn’t use the phrase “a stupid move” in the video interview (the space portion of which starts at about the 5:45 mark) but the article accompanying it says Gingrich called “called President Barack Obama’s decision to shut down the program a disaster and ‘a stupid move,’” so presumably it was from a portion of the interview not on the video, or else Gingrich was misquoted.
From the video, it does not appear that Gingrich is opposing the administration’s idea of supporting commercial human spaceflight development; if anything, he is talking about a far more vigorous program than either what the administration currently proposed or what Congress has been willing to support, with calls for a “crash program” that would restore a US human spaceflight capability within two years. (Whether such a program is feasible is, of course, another question.) In the rest of the clip Gingrich rehashes familiar ground with his complaints about how bureaucratized NASA has become, as he did at a Lincoln-Douglas debate earlier this month with fellow presidential candidate Jon Huntsman.