WASHINGTON — Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney received the endorsement of former NASA Administrator Mike Griffin and seven other space notables Jan. 27, four days before winning a Florida primary contest that shined a fleeting spotlight on U.S. space policy.

Romney’s main rival in Florida’s winner-take-all Republican presidential primary, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, made headlines when he promised during a campaign stop near NASA’s Kennedy Space Center that the United States would have a permanent base on the Moon —- built with private financing and government-sponsored prize money —- by 2020 if he is elected president this November.

Romney ridiculed Gingrich for his pledge and accused him of pandering to Florida’s Space Coast voters.

“I spent 25 years in business. 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,’” Romney said Jan. 26 during a presidential debate in Jacksonville, Fla. “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.”

Romney said he supports a “vibrant and strong space program” but made clear he is in no hurry to settle the Moon.

“I’m not looking for a colony on the Moon,” he said. “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 U.S.”

Griffin, a staunch believer in establishing a U.S. outpost on the Moon before sending humans to Mars, told Space News that Romney’s comments “are being interpreted more broadly than appropriate.”

Romney is not against lunar exploration, according to Griffin, but the former Massachusetts governor is dismissive of Gingrich’s notion that government-sponsored prize competitions can be used to achieve a lunar colony by 2020. Griffin said the U.S. space program would be in better hands under Romney.

“[T]he governor committed to a careful, expert assessment of what the goals and strategy of the U.S. space program should be,” Griffin said in a Feb. 1 email. “I remain confident that when such an assessment is conducted, the Moon will figure prominently in our nation’s future in space.”

The day after the Jacksonville debate, the Romney campaign released an endorsement letter signed by Griffin and seven other current and former U.S. space leaders.

“As president, Mitt Romney will facilitate close collaboration not only within government’s civil and national security space sectors, but also with the private sector and with research institutions,” the letter reads. “He will create conditions for a strong and competitive commercial space industry that can contribute greatly to our national capabilities and goals. And he will ensure that NASA returns its focus to the project of manned space exploration that uniquely affirms American strength and values around the globe. Under his leadership, America will once again lead the world in space.”

The letter’s other signatories are:

  • Scott Pace, director of the George Washington University’s Space Policy Institute and chairman of the Romney Space Policy Advisory Group. Pace led NASA’s Program Analysis and Evaluation Office under Griffin and co-led NASA transition efforts when George W. Bush was elected president in 2000.
  • Mark Albrecht, former president of International Launch Services and current chairman of U.S. Space LLC, a Dulles, Va.-based company marketing commercial space services to the U.S. government. Albrecht served as executive secretary of the now-defunct National Space Council under President George H.W. Bush.
  • Peter Marquez, the Orbital Sciences Corp. vice president of strategy and planning who served as White House director of space policy from 2007 to 2010.
  • Eric Anderson, Space Adventures chief executive and current chairman of the Commercial Spaceflight Federation.
  • Robert Crippen, the former astronaut and space shuttle program director who ran Thiokol Propulsion before the solid-rocket builder was bought by Alliant Techsystems.
  • Eugene Cernan, commander of the Apollo 17 mission and the last man to walk on the Moon.
  • William Martel, associate professor of international security studies at Tufts University near Boston.

Brian Berger is editor in chief of SpaceNews.com and the SpaceNews magazine. He joined SpaceNews.com in 1998, spending his first decade with the publication covering NASA. His reporting on the 2003 Space Shuttle Columbia accident was...