For the second time in less than a week, space became a topic of discussion at a presidential debate Thursday night. At the Republican presidential debate in Jacksonville, Florida, held by CNN, the candidates were given an opportunity to describe their policies regarding human spaceflight in particular, three days after the same topic came up at a debate in Tampa and a day after Newt Gingrich’s space policy speech on the Space Coast.
Mitt Romney was first, asked specifically to respond to Gingrich’s speech. “That’s an enormous expense,” he said of Gingrich’s proposal to create a permanent lunar base by 2020. “I believe in a very vibrant and strong space program,” he added, reiterating his comments in Monday’s debate to bring together various elements of the overall space community, including the military and the private sector, to help draft a plan for NASA’s future. “I’d like to come together and talk about different options and the cost.”
That plan, though, wouldn’t appear to include a lunar base. “I’m not looking for a colony on the Moon. I think the cost of that would be in the hundreds of billions, if not trillions. I’d rather be rebuilding housing here in the US.”
Gingrich, asked how he could achieve that goal while keeping taxes down, launched into another attack on NASA bureaucracy. “You almost have to wonder, what does the Washington office of NASA do? Does it sit around and think space? Does it contemplate that someday we could have a rocket?” The use of prizes and incentives, he said, and “common sense”—specifically citing human-rating the Atlas 5 rocket—could achieve those goals. “I’d like to have an American on the Moon before the Chinese get there.”
Unlike the Tampa debate, the other two leading Republican candidates, Rick Santorum and Ron Paul, also got to weigh in. Santorum was skeptical about the benefits of spending money on this in an era of massive budget deficits. “I agree that we need to bring good minds in the private sector” so that they’re more involved in NASA that currently, he said. “To go out there and to promise new programs and big ideas; it’s a great thing to maybe get votes, but its not a responsible thing.”
Paul started out his comments with a zinger. “I don’t think we should go to the Moon. I think we maybe should send some politicians up there.” He said he supported government funding for space only for military applications, and “not just for the fun of it.” He suggested that a stronger economy would allow for more private investment in space activities. “If we had a healthy economy and had more Bill Gateses and more Warren Buffetts, the money would be there.”
The discussion returned to Gingrich and his comments yesterday about how he supported statehood for a sufficiently populous lunar colony. Gingrich didn’t specifically discuss his statehood ideas, instead reiterating his plan. “I actually agree with Dr. Paul: the program I envision would probably end up being 90-percent private sector,” he said, getting NASA “out of the business of trying to run rockets.” He concluded, “I do not want to be the country that. having gotten to the Moon first, turned around and said, ‘It doesn’t really matter. Let the Chinese dominate space. What do we care?’ I think that is a path of national decline.”
Romney then weighed in again, saying he was skeptical that a lunar base could be privately financed. “If I had a business executive come to me and say they wanted to spend a few hundred billion dollars to put a colony on the Moon, I’d say, ‘You’re fired,'” he said. “The idea that corporate America wants to go off to the Moon and build a colony there, it may be a big idea but it’s not a good idea.”
The conversation went on from there about spending priorities in general and budget deficits, leaving space behind, perhaps for the last time in a 2012 presidential debate (this is the last debate in Florida before its primary Tuesday, and it seems unlikely the topic will come up again in a debate either in the primary or the general election.)
That exchange offered little in the way of new insights into the candidates’ space positions. Gingrich reiterated his comments made in Wednesday’s speech. Romney again brought up the idea of civil-military-commercial space cooperation that he mentioned on Monday (although this time without mentioning if other agencies and companies would be asked to pitch in financially), while distancing himself from Gingrich’s comments. And Santorum and Paul got to weigh in briefly on the topic, although neither has much of a shot of capturing the nomination given their current standings in Florida and national polls. It may not have been that enlightening, but this rare flurry of attention to space, which may continue through Friday when Romney speaks in Cape Canaveral, was fun while it lasted.