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Newt Gingrich
Newt Gingrich, the former Speaker of the House who is contemplating a run for president in 2008, is a strong supporter of space development, but not necessarily NASA. (credit: Newt.org)

A few words with Newt Gingrich

Way back in the late 1970s, between Apollo and the space shuttle, Newt Gingrich and I were members of the L-5 Society, an early space advocacy group that pursued the goal of the creation of a spacefaring civilization. I was fresh out of college, and Mr. Gingrich was beginning his career in the House of Representatives. I was just a rank-and-file member of the L-5 Society, but Rep. Gingrich was a board member, as was former presidential candidate Barry Goldwater.

Since then, I’ve taken an interest in Mr. Gingrich’s career. It turned out to be an historic career, one encompassing deep lows as well as heights reached by only a few politicians in American history. Through it all, perhaps the hallmark was Gingrich’s willingness to embrace new ideas, and new ways to do things.

“NASA is an aging, unimaginative, bureaucracy committed to over-engineering and risk-avoidance which is actually diverting resources from the achievements we need and stifling the entrepreneurial and risk-taking spirit necessary to lead in space exploration.”

Last winter, I decided to try another form of journalism—the email interview. The first public figure I thought to contact, because he seemed to be so comfortable with new ideas, was Newt Gingrich. Well, my idea worked. Mr. Gingrich agreed to do it, and because I knew he and I shared an interest in space policy, I decided to focus the interview on that.

By all accounts, including his own, former Speaker Gingrich is considering a run at the 2008 Republican presidential noination. Space policy will not, by all reasonable accounts, be a major issue in that campaign. The interview below, then, might be one of a very few glimpses we get of a presidential candidate’s approach to opening the solar system.

TSR: I recall you were connected to the L-5 Society years ago. How did that come about? What sparked your interest in space exploration?

Gingrich: I first became interested in space during the Sputnik era and began reading Missiles and Rockets Magazine when I was in the eighth grade.

TSR: In January, 2004, President Bush delivered a speech arguing the US should establish a base on the Moon and go on with manned flights to Mars. He also established what seemed to many to be a reasonable timetable, complete with benchmarks along the way. What is your position on the Vision for Space Exploration (VSE)?

Gingrich: I am for a dramatic increase in our efforts to reach out into space, but I am for doing virtually all of it outside of NASA through prizes and tax incentives. NASA is an aging, unimaginative, bureaucracy committed to over-engineering and risk-avoidance which is actually diverting resources from the achievements we need and stifling the entrepreneurial and risk-taking spirit necessary to lead in space exploration.

TSR: In that same speech, Mr. Bush held out the possibility of pursuing VSE with international partners. Given the history and cost overruns of the International Space Station project, what do you think of internationalizing VSE? On the other hand, ISS is flying, with a crew, and holding Antarctica as a sort of international trust seems to have worked well. Could that Antarctic model be applied to at least the early days of permanent habitation of Luna, and the initial period of manned Martian exploration?

Gingrich: I believe that incentives work as a means to inspire Americans to meet great challenges. If these pioneers want to achieve their goals with multinational companies, that is fine. I am, however, against government-to-government committee-led long-term bureaucratic models of non-achievement that waste resources and, even more importantly, waste time.

TSR: Some argue that in order for VSE to succeed over several years, and at least two presidencies, the private sector must be brought into the very heart of the effort. What do you think? If you support that, how could that be done? Should private, for profit corporations be given a voice in the decision-making process of the program? What kinds of legal rights should corporations that participate in the program be granted as incentives to encourage their participation? Should they, for example, be given tracts of land on the Moon, upon which they could establish mining operations, or hotels to attract tourists, or pharmaceutical research facilities and factories—much as railroad companies in the nineteenth century were given huge tracts of land in exchange for building railroads and helping to open the American West to settlement and commerce?

“I would gladly take a suborbital flight. We should seek to establish standards comparable to hang gliding or mountain climbing and allow adults to take recognized risks.”

Gingrich: We should have very large prizes for achievement. If you had priced the space station as a purely private achievement and paid for it only upon completion you could probably have had three or four companies building systems in one-third to one-fifth of the time for the same total amount of money or less. There ought to be tax credits for manufacturing in space and tax credits for developing commercial flights into near space for space tourism so we build a very robust launch program in the private sector. We need a lot of competitive players, not simply one or two cumbersome large bureaucratic government contractors.

TSR: Would such an expansion of VSE to include the establishment of a capitalist economic system in the Earth-Moon system, for starters, require the negotiation of a new treaty to replace the 1967 Outer Space Treaty?

Gingrich: We should simply interpret the Treaty very broadly and state that in the absence of an international regime, people can pursue legitimate investment and development within national law.

TSR: Editorial writers around the country have already balked at the $104-billion price tag NASA recently put on the VSE, even though that’s spread over several years, especially given current budget deficits, the cost of the Iraq War, the cost of rebuilding after the Gulf hurricanes, the imminent retirement of baby boomers, etc. Do you think the politics generated by those factors will either kill VSE or drive it towards the model that embraces international partners, and, perhaps, brings private corporations into the project as junior partners?

Gingrich: We should get private entrepreneurs to cost out a non-government, non-committee planning competitive model. Look at what the X Prize has generated in private investment for a very modest but very honorable award.

TSR: Beyond participating in the VSE, what do you think of the current attempts to establish private space ventures? Do you worry that if the first suborbital flight carrying paying passengers ends tragically, the private push into space could be stopped dead in its tracks, even if the technology is in fact ready for such commercial use? Would you take such a flight?

Gingrich: I would gladly take a suborbital flight. We should seek to establish standards comparable to hang gliding or mountain climbing and allow adults to take recognized risks.

TSR: Space tourism has gotten most of the publicity in the area of private space ventures so far. Do you think space tourism will in fact be the driver that puts private companies into space in a major, visible way, or do you see some other industry leading the way out?

Gingrich: Space tourism will likely be a significant factor. With the right tax credits and prizes, manufacturing in space could play an even bigger role.

TSR: Many argue that the space program, and especially manned flight, has no real purpose. Many of those who make that argument see putting people on other worlds as something akin to a wildly expensive stunt. How do you see a vigorous space effort fitting into overall US economic strategy? By 2040, will humans be living and working on three worlds, plus platforms orbiting in free space? If so, how important will those far-flung activities be to the US economy, and to the general human economy?

Gingrich: For those who see manned space as having no role they would have thought the Wright Brothers were irrelevant in 1903. The human race has a destiny to spread across the solar system and then across the stars. I prefer that destiny be led by free people.


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ISPCS 2014