Space Case

COCOA, FLORIDA—Newt Gingrich took to the stage with an extra spring in his step yesterday. The presidential candidate has drawn many large crowds in Florida since his shocking South Carolina victory, but it was clear that this was something different from his standard stump speech. "What I'd like to do is a little different than most of the gatherings like this we've done," he said, hardly able to contain his excitement. "I'd like to use this as an opportunity to talk seriously about space."

Gingrich, adopting his historian persona, offered an extensive lesson on American innovation dating back to Abraham Lincoln and finishing with John F. Kennedy's moon speech. Gingrich then placed himself among the pantheon of American greats, setting forth an agenda for space exploration as bold as any plan since the Kennedy era. "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," Gingrich said of his self-termed "weirdest" idea to grant the moon the status of being a state once 13,000 Americans have settled there.

He then got concrete, offering goals and timelines. "By the end of my second term we will have the first permanent base on the moon and it will be American," he said. "We will have commercial near earth activities that include science, tourism and manufacturing, and are designed to create a robust industry precisely on the model of the development of the airlines in the 1930s, because it is in our interest to acquire so much experience in space that we clearly have capacity that the Chinese and the Russians will never come anywhere close to matching."

In case that jingoism wasn't quite enough, Gingrich added one extra carrot. "By the end of the 2020 we will have the first continuous propulsion system in space capable of getting to Mars in a short time, because I'm sick of being told you have to be timid." The crowd at the Space Coast event loved every minute, frequently interrupting Gingrich with wild applause and standing ovations.

Sadly, Gingrich's new proposals would require a huge leap in our technological capabilities in the next eight years. When George W. Bush set forth his NASA agenda in 2004—a vision now roundly criticized as detached from the realities of what the agency could accomplish given budget constraints—he set 2020 as the target date just for landing on the moon once again. But there is precedent for rapid expansion of the nation's space program. It had been less than a month since America sent it's first astronaut into space when Kennedy—speaking before a special joint session of Congress in May 1961—set the goal of landing humans on the moon before the end of the decade.

Kennedy, however, paired that expansive vision with massive investments from the federal government. In its heyday, NASA ate up nearly five percent of the federal budget. Now, it receives around half of one percent. Gingrich made no mention on the size of NASA's budget during his speech and dodged a reporter's question on the topic following the event. Instead, he reiterated his idea from the last debate: reallocate NASA funds to build a prize pool that would incentivize private companies to build the new technologies to achieve these missions.

Gingrich said he would set aside 10 percent of NASA's budget for such endeavors. But unless he raises the general operating funds for the agency, that prize sum would hardly be enough for the level of research required to realize his proposal. NASA had an $18.5 billion budget in 2011, leaving just $1.8 billion per year for this hypothetical pool.

"People are looking at [prizes] as a panacea," lunar scientist Paul Spudis told me on the phone after Gingrich's event. "But they're not that. They're a tool." As of yet, there have been no commercial trips to space, and the largest available jackpot—a $50 million award offered by Robert Bigelow for building a reusable space capsule—went unclaimed after six years. No one had come close to reaching the goal, and no test flights were even attempted.

While it has struggled to get off the ground, there are still many who believe a boom in private space companies could be right around the corner. "It is a very credible path for the U.S. civil space program (NASA) to do far more than they are doing now without massive budget increases by making more effective use of the private sector," said Jeff Greason, CEO of XCOR Aerospace and a member of Obama's space commission in 2009, in an e-mail to the Prospect. "Prizes are good, yes, and if used correctly can stimulate markets.  Prizes have an upper limit to the scope of project they can entail."

Presidential candidate Gingrich has railed against Obama's space policies throughout the campaign. "Despite the shrieks you might have heard from a few special interests, the Obama administration’s budget for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration deserves strong approval from Republicans," Gingrich wrote in a 2010 Washington Times editorial. In fact, Gingrich's latest proposal shares a number of similarities with the current president's space plan. The Obama administration has shifted incentives, hoping to push the burden for low earth orbit onto private industry.

Where Obama and Gingrich diverge is on the scope of projects that can be entrusted to the nongovernment entities. Gingrich's proposed prize pool is larger than anything previously offered to private individuals, but he is also tasking companies to complete unprecedented projects while guaranteeing hard deadlines for success.

At a time of mass unemployment and continuing budget constraints, some would say it's misguided for Gingrich to focus on the space race. President Obama, for example, also hinted at a new path for space exploration on the campaign trail in 2008. As Ryan Lizza notes in this week's New Yorker, Obama had to scale back his ambitions once he entered office and faced the realities of a crumbling economy. "Especially in light of our new fiscal context, it is not possible to achieve the inspiring space program goals discussed during the campaign,” read a memo that went across the president's desk.

Dennis Chamberlaind, a NASA engineer at the Kennedy Space Center who intends to vote for Gingrich next Tuesday, turned up at the speech Wednesday. "I'm very interested in a presidential candidate who's interested in expanding NASA beyond low earth orbit." He was also skeptical of shifting the burden for grand projects onto private companies—"If the private sector can't find a way to make money off of a lunar settlement or a Mars exploration, it's not that they can't do it, they just won't," he said.—but in the end he and I had the same sentiment: It's about time politicians treated manned space exploration as a serious topic once again.


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