The two leading Republican candidates vying to take on President Barack Obama in this year’s presidential election turned to the topic of space during a debate last night in Tampa, Fla.
“This president has failed miserably the people of Florida,” said former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney. “His plans for NASA? He has no plans for NASA. The Space Coast is struggling.”
Debate moderator Brian Williams, anchor of NBC Nightly News, then posed a specific question about space policy to Romney and former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich, who won a decisive win in the South Carolina primary on Saturday. Florida’s primary is on Jan. 31.
“This is the state that put the first man on the moon. America right now has no way to put people into space, except to hitch a ride with the Russians. Meanwhile, the Chinese are ramping up their space program. At a time when you all want to shrink federal spending, should space exploration be a priority?”
“It should certainly be a priority. What we have right now is a president who does not have a vision or a mission for NASA. And as a result of that, there are people on the Space Coast that are suffering, and Florida itself is suffering as a result. So what’s the right way forward? Well I happen to believe our space program is important not only for science but also for commercial development and for military development. And I believe the right mission for NASA should be determined by a president together with a collection of people from those different areas: from NASA, from the Air Force space program, from our leading universities, and from commercial enterprises. Bring them together, discuss a wide range of options for NASA, and then have NASA not just funded by the federal government, but also by commercial enterprises, have some of the research done in our universities. “Let’s have a collaborative effort with business, with government, with the military, as well as with their educational institutions, have a mission that once again excites our young people about the potential of space and the commercial potential will pay for itself down the road. This is a great opportunity. Florida has technology, the people here on the Space Coast have technology and vision and passion that America needs. And with a president who is actually willing to create a mission and a vision for NASA and for space, we can continue to lead the world.”
Gingrich got the next question. Williams asked:
“Would you put more tax dollars into the space race to commit to putting an American on Mars instead of relying on the private sector?”
“The two are not incompatible. For example, most of the great breakthroughs in aviation in the ’20s and ’30s were the result of prizes. Lindbergh flew to Paris for a $25,000 prize. “I would like to see vastly more the money spent encouraging the private sector into very aggressive experimentation, and I’d like to see a leaner NASA. I don’t think building a bigger bureaucracy and having a greater number of people sit in rooms and talk gets you there. “But if we had a series of goals that we were prepared to offer prizes for, there’s every reason to believe that you’d have a lot of folks in this country and around the world who would put up an amazing amount of money and would make the Space Coast literally hum with activity because they’d be drawn to achieve these prizes — going back to the moon permanently, getting to Mars as rapidly as possible, building a series of space stations and developing commercial space. “There are a whole series of things we could do that could be dynamic that are more than just better government bureaucracy. They’re fundamentally leapfrogging into a world where you’re incentivizing people who are visionaries and people in the private sector to invest very large amounts of money and finding a very romantic and exciting future.”
Republican challengers Congressman Ron Paul and former Sen. Rick Santorum weren’t asked about space and didn’t bring up the topic during the debate.
Gingrich will be meeting Wednesday with leaders on Florida’s Space Coast — the region around Kennedy Space Center that bore the brunt of the layoffs following the retirement of the space shuttles last year.
Image: NASA’s days on the moon are long gone. What’s next? Credit: Neil Armstrong/NASA