Former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich offered some new—and attention-grabbing—goals for American space efforts in a speech Wednesday afternoon in Cocoa, Florida. However, while he offered some bold new goals for spaceflight, he didn’t go into much detail about how the US would achieve them, and his underlying political beliefs about space, including support for prizes and a disdain for NASA bureaucracy, remained the same as his previous comments during the presidential campaign.
The pronouncement he made before a reported audience of about 700 people involved the establishment of a permanent lunar base. “By the end of my second term,” he said, a line that itself generated a round of cheers, “we will have the first permanent base on the Moon and it will be American.” In addition, he said, there would be “commercial near-Earth activities” for science, tourism, and manufacturing. “It is in our interest acquire so much experience in space that we clearly have a capacity that the Chinese and the Russians will never come anywhere close to having,” he said, to another burst of applause. He also vowed that by the end of 2020 the US would have “the first continuous propulsion system in space” to allow for far shorter trips to Mars.
He also even suggested that lunar base could some day apply for statehood. Noting that his rival for the Republican nomination, former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney, had ridiculed Gingrich’s earlier calls for lunar colonies, he suggested Romney had missed something even bigger to poke fun of. “At one point early in my career I introduced the ‘Northwest Ordinance for space’,” he said, a reference to the 1780s act that enabled the creation of several Midwestern states. His act, he said, would allow a lunar base that reached a population of 13,000 to petition to become a state. “I will, as president, encourage the introduction of the Northwest Ordinance for space to put a marker down, that we want Americans to think boldly about the future, and we want Americans to go out and study hard and work hard and, together, we’re going to unleash the American people to rebuild the country we love.” That line got a loud and sustained round of applause.
Gingrich did not go into a great deal of specifics about how he would achieve those goals. One approach he suggested was to be “practical” about using equipment. “The Atlas 5 ought to be interchangeable, and ought to be as usable for NASA projects as it is for Air Force projects,” he said. (The Atlas 5 is, in fact, used for launching some NASA science satellites; an Atlas 5 launched NASA’s Mars Science Laboratory mission just two months ago.) He also called for a radical increase in space launch activity: “We need to learn how to do five or eight launches a day, not one.”
In his second space-related appearance of the day, before a space industry roundtable in Cocoa, he indicated that American space efforts required a sense of urgency reminiscent of wartime. “Let me take a radical example,” he said. “If we decided to human-rate the Atlas 5, how long would take take?” Mark Bitterman of United Launch Alliance noted that those efforts were ongoing as part of ULA’s Commercial Crew Development award and the company projected it would take three to five years. “But I’m asking a different question,” Gingrich responded, saying he wanted to know how long it would take if it was just an engineering problem. “I want to relentlessly adopt the model of World War Two, where we learned to fly B-26’s off aircraft carriers in a matter of months because we had no choice.” Bitterman suggested that, based on that model, human-rating effort could be “accelerated significantly.”
However, while the lunar base goal was new and got a lot of media attention, some of the core themes of his space policy philosophy remained unchanged. He expressed once again his interest in prizes. “I would want 10 percent of the NASA budget set aside for prize money,” he said, reiterating comments he’s made in the past, such as a town hall meeting in Texas in October. This was part of his design “to become lean and aggressive” instead of bureaucratic, as he perceives NASA today. “How can we build a bureaucracy this big and get into a period where we rely on the Russians while we watch the Chinese plan to surpass us, while we sit around bureaucratically twiddling our thumbs with no real reform?”
How well will that rhetoric play on Florida’s Space Coast, which is dealing with the economic fallout of the retirement of the Space Shuttle? We’ll find out on Tuesday when Republicans go to the polls. In the meantime, we may get a response from the Romney campaign later this week: he’s scheduled to make a Space Coast campaign appearance Friday afternoon in Titusville, Florida. In addition, CNN is hosting yet another presidential debate Thursday evening in Jacksonville, where, as in Monday night’s debate in Tampa, a state-specific issue like space could merit a question.