GOP Candidates Clash Over US Space Exploration Future
Artist's concept of a possible colony on the moon.
Credit: NASA

Newt Gingrich defended his ambitous spaceflight goals against attacks from the other three contenders for the Republican presidential nomination during Thursday night's (Jan. 26) debate in Florida.

Gingrich said his plan to establish a manned moon base by 2020 would help reassert American dominance in space, spur the growth of a vibrant commercial spaceflight sector and encourage kids to study science, engineering and math.

However, the other three candidates onstage with Gingrich in Jacksonville — former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney, Texas congressman Ron Paul and former Pennsylvania senator Rick Santorum — generally dismissed the onetime Speaker of the House's bold space proposals as too expensive and too impractical.

NASA's current space exploration plan under President Barack Obama is focused on sending astronauts to an asteroid by 2025 and toward a Mars landing in the 2030s. This deep space exploration plan follows NASA's space shuttle program, which retired in 2011 after 30 years of spaceflight. NASA plans to rely on private American spacecraft to ferry astronauts and cargo to and from low-Earth orbit while focusing on its deep space missions.

The four GOP presidential hopefuls discussed NASA, human spaceflight and America's space policy for nearly 12 minutes during the heated debate, the last one before Floridians vote in the Republican primary on Tuesday (Jan. 31). Here's a sampling of what the candidates said. [50 Years of Presidential Space Visions]

Romney (asked by debate moderator Wolf Blitzer if Gingrich's moon colony goal is too expensive): That's an enormous expense, and right now I want to be spending money here. Of course, the Space Coast has been badly hurt, and I believe in a very vibrant and strong space program.

To define the mission for our space program, I'd like to bring in the top professors that relate to space areas, of physics, top people from industry, because I want to make sure what we're doing in space translates into commercial products. I want to bring in our top military experts on space needs, and finally, of course, people from the administration, if I have an administration.

I'd like to come together and talk about different options, and the cost … I believe in a manned space program; I'd like to see whether they believe in the same thing. I'm not looking for a colony on the moon. 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.

Gingrich: (on how he'd achieve his moon colony goal while keeping taxes low): You start with a question: Do you really believe NASA in its current form is the most effective way of leveraging investment in space? We now have a bureaucracy sitting there which has managed to mismanage the program so well that, in fact, we have no lift vehicle …

I believe by the use of prizes, by the use of incentives, by opening up the spaceport so that it's available on a ready basis for commercial flight, by using common sense — for example, the Atlas 5 could easily be fixed into a man-capable vehicle so you didn't have to rely on a Russian launch or a Chinese launch —there are many things you can do to leverage accelerating the development of space.

Lindbergh flew to Paris for a $25,000 prize. If we had a handful of serious prizes, you'd see an extraordinary number of people out there trying to get to the moon first in order to build that. And I'd like to have an American on the moon before the Chinese get there. [Photos of NASA's Apollo Moon Missions]

Santorum: One of the big problems we have in our country today is that young people are not getting involved in math and science and not dreaming big dreams. And so NASA, or the space program, or space, is important. NASA is one component of that. Our space defense is another area, I think both of which are very, very important.

I agree that we need to bring good minds in the private sector much more involved in NASA than the government bureaucracy we have. But let's just be honest. We're on a $1.2 trillion deficit right now. We're borrowing 40 cents of every dollar. And to go out there and promise new programs and big ideas, that's a great thing to maybe get votes. But it's not a responsible thing when you have to go out and say that we have to start cutting programs, not talking about how to grow them…

Those are things that sound good and maybe make big promises to people, but we've got to be responsible in the way we allocate our resources.

Paul: I don't think we should go to the moon. I think we maybe should send some politicians up there…

The amount of money we spend on space, the only part that I would vote for is for national defense purposes. Not to explore the moon and go to Mars — I think that's fantastic, I love those ideas, but I also don't like the idea of building government-business partnerships.

If we had a healthy economy and had more Bill Gateses and more Warren Buffetts, the money would be there. It should be privatized. And the people who work in the industry, if you had that — there would be jobs in aerospace.

I just think that we don't need a bigger, newer program… I mean, health care or something else deserves a lot more priority than going to the moon. So I would be very reluctant. But space technology should be followed up to some degree for national defense purposes, but not just for the fun of it, and, you know, for scientific purposes. [Top 10 Space Weapons]

Gingrich: It is really important to go back and look at what John F. Kennedy said in May of 1961. When he said we will go to the moon in this decade, no American had orbited the Earth. The technology didn't exist. And a generation of young people went into science and engineering and technology, and they were tremendously excited, and they had a future.

I actually agree with Dr. Paul. The program I envision would probably end up being 90 percent private sector. But it would be based on a desire to change the government rules and change the government regulations to get NASA out of the business of trying to run rockets, and to create a system where it's easy for private-sector people to be engaged.

I want to see us move from one launch occasionally to six or seven launches a day… I do not want to be the country that, having gotten to the moon first, turned around and said, "It doesn't really matter. Let the Chinese dominate space. What do we care?" I think that is a path of national decline, and I am for America being a great country, not a country in decline.

Romney: 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."

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.

Look, this idea of going state to state and promising what people want to hear — promising billions, hundreds of billions of dollars to make people happy — that's what got us into the trouble we're in now. We've got to say no to this kind of spending.

You can follow SPACE.com senior writer Mike Wall on Twitter: @michaeldwall. Follow SPACE.com for the latest in space science and exploration news on Twitter @Spacedotcomand on Facebook.