Newt Gingrich, courting voters in Florida’s NASA-heavy “Space Coast,” pledged to build an American lunar colony within eight years if elected president.
“By the end of my second term we will have the first permanent base on the moon and it will be American,” he said. According to Gingrich, the base would be used for “science, tourism, and manufacturing” and create a “robust industry” that would grow “precisely on the model of the airlines in the 1930s.”
The speech was a direct challenge to Mitt Romney, who has accused Gingrich of favoring big government with his past proposals for lunar exploration and colonization.
“I’m not in favor of spending that kind of money to do that,” Romney said in an Iowa debate last month.
Gingrich certainly picked the right audience for his idea: the Speaker drew wild applause and standing ovations from a packed hotel ballroom in Cocoa, FL. But it was not immediately clear either how much the proposal would cost, how it would be funded, and even if Gingrich intended to increase NASA’s budget in the first place, which he criticized for wasteful spending and stifling bureaucratic management. President Obama cancelled George W. Bush’s lunar landing program in 2010 because it was deemed too expensive, instead opting to fund private companies’ space exploration work. And Bush’s goal of returning to the moon by 2020 was far more modest than establishing a functioning colony.
Gingrich suggested that the government could achieve many of America’s goals for space exploration by setting aside 10% of NASA’s budget as prize money to encourage private companies to research lunar technology, interplanetary exploration, and indefinite propulsion.
After his speech, Gingrich held a quiet roundtable discussion with analysts, business leaders, and researchers in the local space and technology industry, where his plan was greeted with a friendly reception, if not without some skepticism. One panelist noted that NASA’s regulations were in place in part because of the catastrophic human and financial losses that come with a crash and that cutting the fat may be hard as a result.
Edward Ellegood, a space policy analyst at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University, raised concerns to reporters about whether prize money could effectively spur a project of the size Newt described.
“I’ve heard from people who’ve been involved with these kind of things in the past, that prizes of that scale don’t work very well,” Ellegood said. “They seem to work very well with smaller scale things, but whether you could scale up to a lunar colony…”
Still, the political value was clear. As NASA’s budget has scaled back, Florida’s space engineering industry has been hit hard and the promise of huge new projects could mean thousands of jobs returning. Robert Whelen, a VP at tech company Harris Corporation, told reporters after the roundtable that decreased NASA funding has meant a loss of 19,000 direct and indirect jobs in recent years.
“I think it’s a great plan,” Court Roberts, 67, a retired space scientist and Newt supporter, told TPM. He agreed with Gingrich that the private sector could outpace NASA in productivity and added that a president with a lunar colony goal could create a boom of engineering students inspired by the project to keep pace with China’s tech boom.
Dr. Patrick Fuller, a precinct captain in the area for Gingrich, also praised Gingrich’s commitment to space exploration on an economic basis.
“Scores of ideas have been born from space research,” he said. “Everything from scratch resistant glass to Teflon.”
Composite includes photo from lculig / Shutterstock
Benjy Sarlin is a reporter for Talking Points Memo and co-writes the campaign blog, TPM2012. He previously reported for The Daily Beast/Newsweek as their Washington Correspondent and covered local politics for the New York Sun.