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lunar base illustration
Gingrich’s call for a lunar base by 2020, which might look like this concept developed under NASA’s Constellation program several years ago, soon morphed into a “Moon colony” in other candidates’ campaign rhetoric. (credit: NASA/John Frassanito and Associates)

Campaign lunacy, revisited

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According to conventional wisdom, any discussion of space policy during the campaign for the Republican presidential nomination should have died off after the Florida primary two weeks ago. With the campaign moving on to states where space was not a local issue—meaning pretty much every other state in the Union—discussion of space topics, including Newt Gingrich’s proposal for a lunar base by 2020 (see “Campaign lunacy”, The Space Review, January 30, 2012), should have died off.

And yet, while the discussion of space policy is at a lower volume than in the week leading up to the Florida primary, it has managed to persist over the last two weeks. To be more accurate, it’s been the discussion of Gingrich’s proposals, and criticism thereof, which has lingered in the campaign long after the candidates departed the Space Coast. Is this a sign that space policy struck a nerve with the American public, or merely tickled its funny bone?

Spendthrift perceptions

Immediately after the Florida primary, the candidates turned their attention to the Nevada caucuses held on February 4. While Nevada is not generally recognized as a “space state” (it is the home of Bigelow Aerospace, although that connection was largely irrelevant in the discussion that followed), two of Gingrich’s competitors used space to criticize the former Speaker of the House in the days leading up to the caucuses.

“Gingrich’s idea is fiscal insanity,” said the narrator of a 60-second radio ad released by the Santorum campaign.

“Ground Control to Major Newt: Nevada Needs Jobs, Not Moon Colony” was the headline of a release by the campaign of former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney. The release claimed that Gingrich’s proposed lunar base could cost up to $500 billion, a number based on apparently a single quote from a CNN article cited in the release. That plan, the release added, was “the latest in a string of expensive extraterrestrial initiatives” that Gingrich has proposed over the years, which the release argued was not a priority when the citizens of Nevada were facing a “jobs and housing crisis”.

Another candidate, former Pennsylvania senator Rick Santorum, also took a shot at Gingrich’s space plans in the days before the Nevada primary. “Gingrich’s idea is fiscal insanity,” said the narrator of a 60-second radio ad, after playing a clip of Gingrich’s January 25th speech that laid out his space plan. As with the Romney release, the Santorum ad summarized Gingrich’s plan as “spending half a trillion dollars on a moon colony.”

Santorum continued his criticism after the Nevada caucuses, won by Romney. In an op-ed released by the campaign on February 5, he argued that Gingrich “chose to blatantly pander to a Florida crowd” by promising a lunar base. “Building a federally-funded moon colony would inevitably cost—at the very least—billions of dollars,” Santorum wrote. “And it takes away from the more immediate, important, and realistic goals of the space program; encouraging partnerships between the space program and private businesses to grow the technology, engineering, and manufacturing sectors of our economy.”

The Romney campaign fired another shot last week. “Our staggering national debt and recurring deficits are jeopardizing America’s fiscal future—yet he [Gingrich] attacks critics of his moon base proposal for being ‘cheap’ and ‘stingy’,” said Romney campaign spokesperson Amanda Henneberg in a statement February 8. “It’s not surprising that his campaign hasn’t left the launch pad.”

“I didn’t propose any additional federal spending, I proposed a fundamental reform of NASA to engage the private sector in very bold and very dramatic ventures,” Gingrich said.

That statement referred to comments Gingrich made the day before on the campaign trail in Dayton, Ohio, in defense of his space policy proposals. “Why did my two Republican competitors instinctively decide we couldn’t go into space? Because they’re cheap,” Gingrich said. He argued that space exploration could support job creation, at least in part due to technological spinoffs. “When we talk about job creation, just remember the iPhone you’re using, the iPad you’re using, the BlackBerry you’re using, the home computer you’re using, all those have components that were developed from the space program.”

In an appearance on NBC’s Meet the Press program on February 5, Gingrich argued his space proposals would not generate a massive increase in federal spending, but instead would make more efficient use of current spending than the existing NASA bureaucracy. “I didn’t propose any additional federal spending, I proposed a fundamental reform of NASA to engage the private sector in very bold and very dramatic ventures,” he said. “I believe it’s possible to unleash the American people, to inspire the private sector, to encourage entrepreneurs and to have a dramatically better space program than we have today.”

Policy debates versus campaign rhetoric

Space advocates might at first glance be pleased with the continued discussion of space policy in the presidential campaign. That debate, continuing after the campaign left the state most closely identified with space, would seem to suggest that space had become a bigger issue, one that warranted more discussion on argue national stage. That perception, though, is most likely wrong.

A closer examination of what the candidates said suggests that, rather than debating the finer points of lunar bases, prize incentives, and the roles of the public and private sectors in space exploration, Romney and Santorum are instead using Gingrich’s speech—specifically, his call for a lunar base by 2020 and even potential later statehood for a lunar outpost—as a cudgel against Gingrich and his overall policies, casting him as a proponent of big government and big spending, rather that a true small-government conservative.

Both Romney and Santorum, for example, claimed that Gingrich’s lunar base would cost up to $500 billion. Yet, since Gingrich himself offered few details about exactly what that base would entail, it’s all but impossible to put a definitive cost estimate on it. ($500 billion, by the way, is about 28 years’ worth of NASA budgets at its current 2012 spending level of $17.8 billion.) Gingrich has also argued he would use large prizes to help incentive private development of a lunar base, although the effectiveness of billion-dollar prizes is untried.

There’s also the rhetoric that Romney and Santorum used: both referred to Gingrich’s plans as a “Moon colony”, a term that Gingrich himself did not use in his speech in Florida, where he instead called for “the first permanent base on the Moon” by the end of a second term in office. A “Moon colony” sounds a little bit more, well, out there, than “base on the Moon”: it gives the proposal more of a retro, science-fiction feel, and overall less realistic—if a base on the Moon by 2020 was ever realistic in the first place.

The apex—or nadir, depending on your point of view—came with a skit that opened the February 4th episode of NBC’s Saturday Night Live, whose title speaks for itself: “Newt Gingrich: Moon President”.

While Romney and Santorum may be using Gingrich’s proposals to criticize him, they’re not using it as an opportunity to discuss their alternative approaches to space policy. The Romney campaign has been quiet on its ideas since Romney’s own Space Coast speech on January 27, where he took a more pragmatic tack, saying he would create a committee of experts to examine space policy and make proposals, a concept reminiscent of past blue-ribbon panels. Santorum did say in his op-ed that he preferred creating partnerships between the government and the private sector, but did not discuss to what ends those partnerships would work towards. (And while Santorum made that claim to contrast himself from Gingrich, the two are more likely in much closer agreement, given Gingrich’s past rhetoric against NASA bureaucracy and for turning over more activities to the private sector.)

Although his opponents may be skewing his policies, Gingrich did himself few favors with the policy pronouncements he made. He may support the idea of bold visions for America, like a lunar base by 2020, but he gave little explanation why there was the need for such expediency, or even why a lunar base was necessary in the first place beyond demonstrating American preeminence in space. NASA itself has struggled with coming up with a simple, yet compelling, rationale for human lunar exploration (see “Moonbase why”, The Space Review, December 11, 2006), so it’s little surprise that Gingrich fell short here as well, but by throwing out an audacious goal without more details about the why and how of a lunar base, he opened himself up to the criticism he’s received from his fellow candidates and others.

As you might expect, that criticism wasn’t limited to the details of the technologies required for a lunar base or the criteria for prizes to enable their development. Gingrich was roundly lampooned for his proposal, his face photoshopped onto the helmets of spacesuits as he was lambasted for offering a lunar base that hardly anyone had asked for or seemed to really want. The apex—or nadir, depending on your point of view—came with a skit that opened the February 4th episode of NBC’s Saturday Night Live, whose title speaks for itself: “Newt Gingrich: Moon President”.

So while some space advocates may think they’ve been treated to an extended debate about space policy that transcended local politics in Florida, the reality appears to be something different. Rather than exchanging views about space over the last two weeks, the candidates have taken Gingrich’s lunar base proposal—which fell flat among the general public—and are using it to challenge Gingrich’s conservative bona fides. In response, rather than provide more details about his proposal and its importance, Gingrich has fallen back on more general rhetoric in support of space exploration and its spinoffs.

How long this line of attack and counterattack will continue is unclear, but even some in the party suggest it may be time to move on. “Unfortunately, GOP voters haven't gotten the real debate on these issues that they deserve,” conservative commentator Laura Ingraham said on Fox News last week. “There have been way too many distractions over things like Herman Cain’s personal life or Newt Gingrich’s space policy or the HPV vaccine.” In other words, space policy, at least as outlined by Gingrich, has been a distraction from the key economic, foreign policy, and social issues Republicans should be addressing as they consider who should be their party’s nominee. Conventional wisdom may have been right after all.