Newt Skywalker: Less NASA, More Space

Moon base and prize money top Republican presidential candidate Newt Gingrich's to-do list for space exploration.

THE GIST

Newt Gingrich proposes a U.S. base on the moon by 2020.

Gingrich says if elected, he'd want to spend 10 percent of NASA's budget on prize money for space technology competitions.

Hoping to corner the space vote, Republican presidential candidate Newt Gingrich launched a new platform Wednesday promising less NASA bureaucracy, more money for space prizes and a base on the moon.

"I think there are a lot of different things you want to learn (on the moon)," Gingrich told reporters after his announcement at a packed political rally in Cocoa, Florida, a community near the Kennedy Space Center on Florida's east central coast.

Specifically Gingrich cited learning how to live off the moon's resources, how to do manufacturing in low-gravity and how to use the moon's atmosphere-free environment for science.

Former President George Bush embarked on a moon exploration program called Constellation that was canceled due to funding shortfalls.

Gingrich wants to pioneer space without a huge standing government bureaucracy and with investments by private industry. To help lure companies and research organizations to space, Gingrich proposes to spend 10 percent of NASA's budget, which is currently $17.8 billion, for prizes for an array of competitions.

BLOG: Romney, Gingrich Weigh In On Space Exploration

The idea is similar to what the X Prize Foundation did to spur the first private human spaceships in 2004. The winner of the $10 million Ansari X Prize, SpaceShipOne, become the model for a commercial spaceship, currently undergoing testing, that is expected to begin passenger surborbital spaceflights in a year or so.

The Obama administration replaced Bush's moon program with a more generic deep-space exploration plan built around the Orion capsule and a NASA-developed heavy-lift rocket, with the aiming of making a test flight with people around the moon in 2021.

"I'd want to look at that in the context of how rapidly alternatives could be developed and whether or not there was a way to actually hae lots of competition to actually fly something," Gingrich said.

Likewise, NASA's over-budget James Webb Space Telescope, a successor to the Hubble Space Telescope, wouldn't get a pass under a Gingrich presidency.

"I think you've got to look at some of these science projects," he told Discovery 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.'"

With the space shuttle fleet retired, Gingrich said the agency needs to shrink as well.

"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? I think this is a very serious problem. You have a huge Washington bureaucracy that thinks. Actually we need a lot more doing," Gingrich told Discovery News.

More than anything, what is most important for space policy is "consistent, steady, aggressive leadership," said former astronaut Mike McCulley, who recently retired as the president of United Space Alliance, NASA's prime contractor for space shuttle operations.

"President Bush gave a good speech, but nobody followed up on it," McCulley told Gingrich during a post-rally meeting of aerospace executives and community leaders.

Over the years, there have been several NASA programs that consumed enormous amounts of energy, money and time, he added.

"Here we are, eight years later with nothing much to show for it," McCulley said.

The Florida Republican presidential primary is on Tuesday. Gingrich, a former Speaker of the House, faces former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney, Congressman Ron Paul and former Sen. Rick Santorum.