COCOA, Fla. — Former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich staked out new ground in his quest to win the Republican U.S. presidential nomination with a plan to win the hearts and votes of space enthusiasts dispirited by the lull in U.S. human spaceflight and what some perceive as lackluster plans for future exploration.
“It’s been tragic to see what has happened to our space program,” Gingrich said during a campaign rally in Cocoa, Fla., one of the communities surrounding the Kennedy Space Center, which has been largely idled by the retirement of the space shuttles last year.
Gingrich called for a permanent U.S. base on the Moon by 2020; near-Earth commercial space activities including science, tourism and manufacturing; and a “continuous propulsion system” in space capable of cutting travel time to Mars.
“We may get some of this stuff a lot faster,” Gingrich added, turning to the more practical aspect of funding.
Gingrich wants 10 percent of NASA’s annual budget — currently $17.8 billion — set aside as prize money for a variety of space technology competitions, a strategy embraced by the privately funded X Prize Foundation, which staged a $10 million contest for privately funded suborbital human spaceflight, clinched in 2004 by Paul Allen and Scaled Composites’ SpaceShipOne.
Gingrich did not specify how much a Moon base or any of his other initiatives would cost, nor what percentage would come from the private sector. He also did not address international partnering.
During a press conference with reporters following the speech, Gingrich said he would look at NASA’s current plans for deep-space exploration to see if there are any alternatives to the agency’s Orion Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle capsule and shuttle-derived Space Launch System (SLS) heavy-lift booster.
“I’d want to look at [Orion and SLS] in the context of how rapidly alternatives could be developed and whether or not there was a way to actually have lots of competition to actually fly something,” Gingrich said.
NASA plans its first crewed test flight of an SLS-launched Orion in 2021. The full version of the SLS booster, including the J-2X upper-stage engine, would not be ready until after that. President Barack Obama has called for the system to be ready to fly astronauts to an asteroid in 2025.
Gingrich also singled out the overbudget James Webb Space Telescope, a successor to the Hubble Space Telescope, for additional study.
“I think you’ve got to look at some of these science projects,” he told Space News. “The fact that the Webb telescope has gone from $1.5 billion to $9 billion — and I’m told that people don’t believe that at $9 billion it’s going to be on budget — at some point you have to stop and say, ‘There’s something systemically wrong when you get into this scale of an overrun.’ I think that deserves serious review.”
Gingrich acknowledged that his ideas might not sit well with the established NASA bureaucracy.
“If they have as many bureaucrats now when they’re not launching as they had when they were launching, you really have to ask, what is it they do?” he said. “I think this is a very serious problem. You have a huge Washington bureaucracy that thinks. Actually we need a lot more doing.”
Gingrich wrapped up his Space Coast visit with a roundtable discussion with about 22 aerospace executives and community leaders.
Former astronaut Mike McCulley, who recently retired as the president of shuttle prime contractor United Space Alliance, said more than anything what is needed is “consistent, steady, aggressive leadership.”
“President Bush gave a good speech, but nobody followed up on it,” McCulley said, referring to George W. Bush’s now-canceled Constellation Moon exploration initiative.
Gingrich asked about speeding up the schedule for human-rating United Launch Alliance’s Atlas 5 rocket, the designated booster for three of the four firms currently developing space taxis under NASA partnership agreements.
He also called for a spaceport capable of launching five or more times a day.
“If we’re going to get to the Moon permanently and we’re going to start to get to Mars and we’re going to build this near-Earth capability and do it all within eight years, we’d better start thinking more like the airports than like space systems,” Gingrich said.
“It’s not that we can’t do it, it’s just that we don’t push ourselves, we don’t think about it, we don’t design the system for it,” he said. “The World War II generation built tons of airplanes so the designers that came out of World War II made lots of mistakes. And they learned from it. If you’re a military aircraft designer today, you’re lucky if you work on more than one airplane in your life. That’s how slow and cumbersome and bureaucratic it is. You don’t have any learning curve.
“I want us to have so much constant, energetic, excited activities that people are learning again, and that we’re drawing the best talent in the country right back to the Space Coast because it’s exciting and it’s dynamic and who knows what next week is going to be like.
“Does that mean I’m a visionary? You betcha.”The Florida Republican presidential primary is Jan. 31. Gingrich faces former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, U.S. Rep. Ron Paul of Texas and former Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania.
During a debate Jan. 26, all three contenders distanced themselves from Gingrich’s Moon plans.
“I spent 25 years in business,” Romney said. “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.’”
Instead, Romney said he favors a space program that unites science, military and commercial use.
Santorum said his priority would be to reduce the federal deficit, which would not leave much money for nonessential investments in space exploration.
Paul said he was interested in space only for defense purposes.