Romney, Gingrich Debate Space Policy

The Republican presidential debate in Tampa included a question about the space program that was answered by the two front runners. A transcript is below followed by some analysis.

BETH REINHARD: Governor Romney, this is the state that put the first men 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?

Governor Romney?

MITT ROMNEY: 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 — 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 — 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 — 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 — with government, with a military, as well as with our educational institutions. Have a mission, once again excite 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 that is actually willing to create a mission and a vision for — for NASA and for space, we can continue to lead the world.

Mitt Romney. (Credit: Gage Skidmore)
REINHARD: Speaker Gingrich, would you put more tax dollars into the space race and commit to putting an American on Mars, instead of relying on the private sector?
NEWT GINGRICH:Well, the two are not incompatible. For example, most of the great breakthroughs in aviation in the `20s and `30s were as a result of prizes. Lindbergh flew to Paris for a $25,000 prize. I would like to see vastly more of the money spent encouraging the private sector into very aggressive experimentation.

And I`d like 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 you 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 you can 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 in finding very romantic and exciting futures.

Newt Gingrich. (Credit: Gage Skidmore)
EDITOR’S ANALYSIS:Romney doesn’t say much of anything here. He has no specific solutions for the Space Coast, which is suffering badly due to the end of the space shuttle program. I’m not sure if this is a result of a lack of preparation (space isn’t on the radar yet), or if it an attempt to be clever and not get tied down to any specific policy prescriptions that he might have to go back on later. Either way, it doesn’t give much guidance to unemployed aerospace workers in Florida.

Gingrich’s approach is more specific: a smaller NASA, more commercial space, and ever larger prizes. It’s not clear how a smaller space agency will go over along the Space Coast. The other question is just how much prizes can be spun up. Lunar lander challenge? Sure. A prize to replicate what the X-15 did 40 years earlier? OK. Human mission to the moon and Mars? I’m not so sure.

Gingrich has promised a JFK-like space speech later this week, so we’ll see if he puts any meat on the bones. Romney also has a chance to elaborate on his plan in the run-up to the Jan. 31 primary.