The two current frontrunners in the race for the Republican presidential nomination, former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich and former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney, both had the opportunity to speak out about space policy during a debate Monday night in Tampa, Florida. Romney mentioned space first in passing as part of a longer comment about the problems experienced in the state during the Obama Administration. “This president has failed miserably the people of Florida,” he said. “His plans for NASA? He has no plans for NASA. The Space Coast is struggling.”
A little later, a moderator asked a specific space policy question: “Governor Romney, this is the state that put the first man on the Moon. America right now has no way to put people into space except to hitch a ride with the Russians. Meanwhile, the Chinese are ramping up their space program. At a time when you all want to shrink federal spending, should space exploration be a priority?”
It should certainly be a priority. What we have right now is a president who does not have a vision or a mission for NASA. And as a result of that, there are people on the Space Coast that are suffering, and Florida itself is suffering as a result. So what’s the right way forward? Well I happen to believe our space program is important not only for science but also for commercial development and for military development. And I believe the right mission for NASA should be determined by a president together with a collection of people from those different areas: from NASA, from the Air Force space program, from our leading universities, and from commercial enterprises. Bring them together, discuss a wide range of options for NASA, and then have NASA not just funded by the federal government, but also by commercial enterprises, have some of the research done in our universities, let’s have a collaborative effort with business, with government, with the military, as well as with their educational institutions, have a mission that once again excites our young people about the potential of space and the commercial potential will pay for itself down the road. This is a great opportunity. Florida has technology, the people here on the Space Coast have technology and vision and passion that America needs. And with a president who is actually willing to create a mission and a vision for NASA and for space, we can continue to lead the world.
The moderator then turned to Gingrich. “Would you put more tax dollars into the space race to commit to putting an American on Mars instead of relying on the private sector?” His answer:
The two are not incompatible. For example, most of the great breakthroughs in aviation in the 20s and 30s were the result of prizes. Lindbergh flew to Paris for a $25,000 prize. I would like to see vastly more the money spent encouraging the private sector into very aggressive experimentation, and I’d like to see a leaner NASA. I don’t think building a bigger bureaucracy and having a greater number of people sit in rooms and talk gets you there. But if we had a series of goals that we were prepared to offer prizes for, there’s every reason to believe that you’d have a lot of folks in this country and around the world who would put up an amazing amount of money and would make the Space Coast literally hum with activity because they’d be drawn to achieve these prizes: going back to the Moon permanently, getting to Mars as rapidly as possible, building a series of space stations and developing commercial space. There are a whole series of things we could do that could be dynamic that are more than just better government bureaucracy. They’re fundamentally leapfrogging into a world where you’re incentivizing people who are visionaries and people in the private sector to invest very large amounts of money and finding a very romantic and exciting future.
The other two candidates, Congressman Ron Paul and former Sen. Rick Santorum, were not asked the question and did not volunteer comments on space policy elsewhere in the 100-minute debate.
The responses by Gingrich and Romney are a study in contrasts in more ways than one. Gingrich has spoken on space previously on a number of occasions, far more than any other candidate, as regular readers of this blog know. His comments tonight are very similar to what he’s said before, promoting prizes and denigrating NASA bureaucracy. Romney, on the other hand, has said virtually nothing about space; his comments tonight are perhaps the most substantial comments he’s offered on space during the 2012 campaign. He offered a very different vision, where civil, commercial, and military organizations would collaborate with and even help fund NASA. Without further details, it’s a somewhat puzzling concept: what benefits would the military and commercial sectors get from more closely tying themselves to, and helping pay for, NASA programs? Perhaps over the next week—the Florida primary is a week from Tuesday—the Romney campaign will fine-tune that message.