The Space Reviewin association with SpaceNews

Romney in Florida
Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney (above) promised last week to bring together top experts to determine a new mission for NASA if elected. (credit: Mitt Romney for President)

Campaign lunacy

Bookmark and Share

Political campaigns, presidential or otherwise, can be unpredictable affairs. Controversies can suddenly rise up, and nearly as quickly disappear. Momentum can swing from one candidate to another in a matter of days thanks to a speech or a debate performance or a series of ads. In the last several months, a series of candidates for the Republican presidential nomination became frontrunners, only to flame out or self-destruct.

With Florida holding one of the early primaries in the GOP presidential nomination campaign, one would expect that space would get some mention during the run-up to tomorrow’s election, given the strong association with space the state in general, and the “Space Coast” region in particular, has. Four years ago, several candidates made appearances on the Space Coast, talking about space policy in at least general terms. Few, though, would have predicted just a week ago that the news about the campaign would be dominated, if only briefly, about talk of Moon bases and even lunar statehood. (Yes, lunar statehood.) Yet, that’s exactly what happened, as the two frontrunners for the nomination, former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich and former Governor of Massachusetts Mitt Romney, offered very different visions of what they would do in space if elected president this November. One offered a bold vision, but with few details, while the other focused less on a vision than a description of how he would develop a new mission for NASA.

Lunar bases and a Northwest Ordinance for space

The first clue that space would be a significant issue came last Sunday, January 22. In an appearance on C-SPAN’s “Washington Journal” program barely 12 hours after winning the South Carolina primary, Gingrich said he would be talking about space, among other issues, in Florida during the coming week. “I’ll be at the Space Coast in Florida this week giving a speech, a visionary speech, on the United States going back into space in the John F. Kennedy tradition rather than the current bureaucracy,” he said.

“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,” Gingrich said.

Gingrich had already talked a lot about space during the campaign, criticizing NASA bureaucracy and proposing alternative approaches, such as large-scale prizes to incentivize the private sector to carry out missions like a human return to the Moon or a mission to Mars (see “Where the candidates stand on space in 2012”, The Space Review, January 3, 2012). At the time, it wasn’t immediately clear what more he would be willing to add on top of those earlier statements, which had already set him apart from the other candidates, who said far less—if anything—about space policy so far during the campaign.

In a debate Monday in Tampa, Florida, Gingrich reiterated those earlier points. “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,” he said in response to a question about space policy. “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.”

Gingrich’s promised space speech came late Wednesday afternoon at a rally in Cocoa, Florida. At that speech he moved beyond his previous talking points of bureaucracy versus prizes towards a far bolder goal. “By the end of my second term,” he said, a line that itself generated a round of cheers from the reported crowd of 700 people in a hotel ballroom, “we will have the first permanent base on the Moon and it will be American.” He also vowed that by the end of 2020 the US would have “the first continuous propulsion system in space” to allow for far shorter trips to Mars.

If Gingrich had stopped there he likely would have made plenty of headlines. But he pressed on to something even more audacious. He noted that he had gotten criticism from Romney back in December for his previous calls—dating back to the 1984 book Window of Opportunity—for lunar colonies. Gingrich said that Romney missed an even bigger opportunity to make fun of the former congressman. “At one point early in my career I introduced the ‘Northwest Ordinance for space’,” he said, a reference to the 1780s act that enabled the creation of several Midwestern states. His act, he said, would allow a lunar base that reached a population of 13,000 to petition to become a state.

Rather than back away from that legislation, though, Gingrich adopted it in his speech. “I will, as president, encourage the introduction of the Northwest Ordinance for space to put a marker down, that we want Americans to think boldly about the future, and we want Americans to go out and study hard and work hard and, together, we’re going to unleash the American people to rebuild the country we love.” That line got a loud and sustained round of applause.

Although the call for a lunar base by 2020 and even a path for eventual statehood for such a settlement got the bulk of the media attention, Gingrich’s underlying messages remained unchanged. He pushed for prizes and criticized NASA as a bureaucratic organization unable or unwilling to move quickly.

“I’d like to have an American on the Moon before the Chinese get there,” Gingrich said.

After his rally, Gingrich attended an invitation-only meeting of local space industry executives and other officials at a nearby community college. During the half-hour meeting he was mostly in listening mode as various participants discussed the importance of issues ranging from space access to STEM education. When he did speak, he pushed to find ways to accelerate American space efforts. “Let me take a radical example,” he said. “If we decided to human-rate the Atlas 5, how long would it take?” Mark Bitterman of United Launch Alliance noted that those efforts were ongoing as part of ULA’s Commercial Crew Development award and the company projected it would take three to five years.

“But I’m asking a different question,” Gingrich responded, saying he wanted to know how long it would take if it was just an engineering problem. “I want to relentlessly adopt the model of World War Two, where we learned to fly B-26’s off aircraft carriers in a matter of months because we had no choice.” (Gingrich was apparently referring to the 1942 Dolittle Raid on Tokyo, which actually used B-25 aircraft.) Bitterman suggested that, based on that model, human-rating effort could be “accelerated significantly.”

Gingrich defended his approach when space came up again in a debate Thursday in Jacksonville, Florida. “You almost have to wonder, what does the Washington office of NASA do? Does it sit around and think space? Does it contemplate that someday we could have a rocket?” The use of prizes and incentives, he said, and “common sense”—again specifically citing human-rating the Atlas 5 rocket—could achieve those goals. “I’d like to have an American on the Moon before the Chinese get there.”

Not a mission, but how to create one

By contrast, Romney offered no bold goals for NASA in his debate and campaign appearances in Florida. Instead, he outlined the approach he would take to develop a new mission for NASA while criticizing both the Obama Administration’s space efforts and Gingrich’s proposal.

Romney, who had been largely silent on space in the 2012 campaign beyond his criticism of Gingrich’s past lunar colony proposals back in December, offered the first details about his approach in the Monday debate in Tampa. “What we have right now is a president who does not have a vision or a mission for NASA,” he claimed. “I happen to believe our space program is important not only for science but also for commercial development and for military development.”

“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,’” Romney said.

Instead of offering a specific mission or vision, though, he outlined how he would develop one. “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,” he said. He even suggested that those other organizations help fund NASA. “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.”

Romney reiterated those comments three days later in Jacksonville, while also criticizing Gingrich’s lunar base proposal. “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 US,” he said, later adding he was skeptical that the private sector was willing to pay for its development. “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.’”

Late Friday, Romney laid out his plans in somewhat greater detail in a speech at an Astrotech Space Operations facility in Cape Canaveral. Again, he said his emphasis was not on a specific goal now, but instead the process he would use as president to determine a new mission for NASA. “In the politics of the past, to get your vote on the Space Coast, I’d promise hundreds of billions of dollars, or I’d lay out what my mission is,” he said. “I’m not going to do that. I know that’s something very attractive, very popular, but it’s simply the wrong thing to do.”

Instead, he outlined what he saw as the four objectives for the space program: “existential” studies of things “going on in the universe that could dramatically affect the Earth”, supporting commercial efforts, increasing the health and well-being of Americans through research and spinoffs, and national defense. “Each of them is, in and of itself, a critical priority, but collectively they suggest our space program is an integral part of America’s exceptionalism, and we must have a space program that combines all four of those missions.”

He said he would bring in people from various sectors of the space community, including the Defense Department, “astrophysicists from some of the leading institutions of the world”, industry executives, and NASA officials. They, he said, “will talk about each of those missions, each of those objectives, and then determine which mission for NASA, which mission for space, will most effectively carry out those missions.” That approach, he said, would make sure the job was done right and would support the nation as well as “protect ourselves from threats from space.”

Shortly before his speech, the Romney campaign released an open letter signed by several key figures in the space community endorsing him. “Restoring the U.S. space program to greatness will require the leadership, management skill, and commitment to American exceptionalism possessed by only one candidate in this race: Mitt Romney,” the letter states. “We support Mitt’s candidacy and believe that his approach to space policy will produce results instead of empty promises.” Those signing the letter included former NASA administrator Mike Griffin, former astronauts Gene Cernan and Bob Crippen, and the former executive secretary of the National Space Council during the George H.W. Bush Administration, Mark Albrecht.

“Should he win the White House,” Anderson said of Romney, “he would take decisive action on what NASA’s mission should be.”

Another person who signed the letter was Eric Anderson, the chairman and CEO of Space Adventures and chairman of the Commercial Spaceflight Federation. In an interview after Romney’s speech Friday night, Anderson said he had been approached by the Romney campaign several months earlier to serve on a space policy working group whose members included those who signed Friday’s letter. Anderson said he had also met with Romney in the past and talked with him one-on-one about commercial space in particular.

“He had not thought a lot about commercial space,” Anderson admitted, but in those personal conversations, Romney indicated to Anderson his enthusiasm for the private sector’s recent developments in human spaceflight capabilities. Anderson believes that if Romney won the presidency he would be an advocate of commercial space.

Anderson also supported Romney’s approach not to set specific goals now but instead propose a mechanism for developing them later. “It’s not the right thing to do now to set goals,” he said. “He doesn’t know enough about it to pick this over that.” Anderson believes, though, that a President Romney is “by far the likeliest” to select a plan that could be carried out over one or two terms of office. “NASA has been kicked around like a pinball. We can’t keep stopping and starting,” he said. A new plan “can’t break the bank like Constellation, and it can’t be directionless.”

“Should he win the White House,” Anderson said of Romney, “he would take decisive action on what NASA’s mission should be.”

Santorum and Paul speak out

Lost in the attention devoted last week to the two frontrunners were statements made by the other two remaining major Republican candidates: Congressman Ron Paul and former Senator Rick Santorum. Neither had said anything about space policy during the campaign to date, but had an opportunity to provide their views during the Jacksonville debate on Thursday.

Santorum was skeptical about the benefits of spending money on major space efforts in an era of massive budget deficits. “I agree that we need to bring good minds in the private sector” so that they’re more involved in NASA that currently, he said. “To go out there and to promise new programs and big ideas; it’s a great thing to maybe get votes, but its not a responsible thing.” Earlier in the day, in a campaign appearance, he dismissed Gingrich’s lunar base goal as “crass politics.”

Paul started out his comments with a zinger. “I don’t think we should go to the Moon. I think we maybe should send some politicians up there.” Consistent with his more libertarian political philosophy, Paul said he supported government funding for space only for military applications, and “not just for the fun of it.” A stronger economy, he argued, would allow for more private investment in space activities. “If we had a healthy economy and had more Bill Gateses and more Warren Buffetts, the money would be there.”

Capsule analysis

By the end of the week, the two frontrunners—Gingrich and Romney—stood in stark contrast to each other on space. Gingrich advocated a bold goal, while Romney offered a more pragmatic approach to eventually develop goals and missions for America in space. Each has its strengths and weaknesses.

“I don’t think we should go to the Moon,” said Paul. “I think we maybe should send some politicians up there.”

Gingrich’s call for a lunar base, and implied support for settlement and even statehood, resonated with many space advocates who have for decades sought space settlement as a long-term goal for America. The Space Frontier Foundation, long an advocate for space settlement, didn’t explicitly support Gingrich’s call but was clearly pleased by it. “It wasn't a plan for NASA, or for a few astronauts and aerospace contractors, but for all Americans,” Will Watson, executive director of the organization, said in a statement. “Although the Space Frontier Foundation is non-partisan, we are emboldened, and we strongly urge all the candidates to lay out equally powerful visions for America and the Space Frontier.”

That proposal, though, was subjected to heavy criticism and even ridicule from others, and understandably so. Gingrich offered few specifics about how he would carry out such a plan, including funding levels and the effectiveness of billion-dollar prizes in motivating the private sector. In Thursday’s debate he said he expected that the private sector would shoulder 90 percent of the burden of that program, although he didn’t specify that meant he expected them to pay 90 percent of the cost as well. He also offered few reasons why there should be a base at all, let alone one developed with the expediency of wartime, beyond national prestige. “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.”

To achieve that goal would require a major revamping of how NASA operated, especially if it was to work in concert with the private sector. After all, it was eight years ago this month that President George W. Bush proposed returning humans to the Moon, also by 2020. Yet that program ran into funding and schedule programs that made it unsustainable.

A major change in NASA would also likely run into strong Congressional opposition, particularly if it threatened existing NASA facilities or the current contracts of major aerospace firms. Gingrich argued his past experience as Speaker of the House would help him push through any new space initiative. “I suspect that, having been Speaker, and having served in the House for 20 years, I have a reasonable level of understanding of how to move the institutions,” he said in Wednesday’s forum with local space leaders in Florida.

While Romney’s approach of bringing together leaders in the space community to work together and develop a plan for NASA sounded like a common-sense approach, it seemed to many to simply repeat history. A few months after taking office in 2009, for example, President Obama commissioned his own study of NASA’s human spaceflight program, a group commonly known as the Augustine Committee. And, after rolling out the Vision for Space Exploration in 2004, President Bush had his own group—commonly called the Aldridge Commission—provide feedback on the plan. How will yet another blue-ribbon panel provide lasting direction for NASA? It’s also not clear if his call for having other agencies and companies financially support NASA—a comment Romney has not repeated since the Tampa debate last Monday—would have much support with either the military or the private sector.

For a moment, at least, space policy had its time in the limelight—or, perhaps, the moonlight.

Romney’s choice of goals also struck some as odd. While NASA research and spinoffs do help support national health and well-being, it’s rarely considered a goal of American space efforts on a par with national defense, for example. Also unusual was his description of study of “existential” issues as a major objective: in his speech Friday he described them as “things going on out there in the universe that could dramatically affect the Earth, our climate, perhaps even a catastrophic event of some kind.” That would appear to include Earth sciences research and perhaps searches for near Earth objects that pose an impact hazard for the Earth as well as study of solar storms. However, it would leave out a lot of other avenues of scientific work currently performed by NASA, including astronomical and planetary sciences research, which he did not otherwise identify as an objective for the US in space.

Gingrich and Romney do have some things in common, though. Both see space activities, in particular human spaceflight, as essential to national prestige and American exceptionalism. Both also support continued, if not enhanced, commercial activities in space.

While many space advocates were thrilled about the unusual amount of attention that space received in the campaign this past week, its 15 minutes of fame are likely about up, at least until the general election. After Tuesday’s primary in Florida the candidates—at least those able to keep their campaigns alive—will move on to other states where space doesn’t have the same local interest as it does in parts of Florida. Even in Florida, the state’s Republican governor, Rick Scott, encouraged the candidates on Sunday to focus on the economy and jobs rather than issues like space or immigration.

So within days talk of Moon bases, lunar statehood, and existential threats from space will fade from the campaign, perhaps for good in the 2012 campaign. What affect this will have on space policy on the long-term remains to be seen: it could be none, after all, especially if the eventual Republican nominee loses in November to President Obama. But for a moment, at least, space policy had its time in the limelight—or, perhaps, the moonlight.