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Newt to NASA: Stop Talking about Space Exploration–Just Do It

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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Gingrich in New Hampshire. Credit: Patrick Gensel via Flickr/Creative Commons

Republican presidential hopeful Newt Gingrich made a campaign stop on Florida’s Space Coast January 25, laying out a vision for NASA that included a manned moon base within a decade.

The former speaker of the House, who topped our rankings of the candidates in terms of geek cred, wasted no time in trotting out his space bona fides. “I have a deep passion about this because I’m old enough that I used to read Missiles & Rockets magazine,” Gingrich said at public event at a Holiday Inn Express in Cocoa, Fla. He also noted his love for science fiction, particularly for the writings of Isaac Asimov. “It helped shape my life,” he said. Lastly there was the self-described “weirdest” move of his career: introducing legislation in the 1980s to allow an American moon colony of sufficient size (13,000 residents) to petition the U.S. for statehood.

But the bulk of his speech was given over to laying out aggressive goals for NASA in a hypothetical Gingrich administration, and in placing those plans in a favorable historical context. “By the end of my second term, we will have the first permanent base on the moon, and it will be American,” Gingrich said. “By 2020 we will have the first continuous propulsion system in space capable of getting to Mars in a short time.”

Gingrich was not shy about making such grandiose predictions (“Americans are instinctively grandiose, because we believe in a bigger future”), drawing comparisons to similar goals set by Abraham Lincoln (transcontinental railroad), the Wright brothers (heavier-than-air flight) and John F. Kennedy (moon shot).

But he was less forthcoming on how he intends to achieve those goals. He proposed setting aside 10 percent of NASA’s budget for prizes to, for instance, figure out an efficient way to get to Mars. “If we truly inspire the entrepreneurial spirits of America, we may get some of this stuff a lot faster,” he said. He also made numerous references to bloated NASA bureaucracy and time spent conducting studies rather than actually trying new things, saying that “we want to become lean and aggressive.” He proposed applying the business concepts of lean six sigma to eliminate waste and speed innovation at NASA.

“It has been tragic to see what has happened with our space program over the last 30 years,” he said. “You know what a total mess, what an embarrassment our current situation is.” Had the U.S. carried the momentum of the Apollo program through the decades that followed, Gingrich claimed, lunar bases and manned Mars landings would have been accomplishments of the 1980s rather than lofty campaign promises in 2012.

But NASA was hardly lean in the days of Apollo. At its peak, the space agency chewed up more than 4 percent of the federal budget, whereas today its allotment is closer to 0.6 percent. Setting ambitious goals for space exploration is admirable—and prominent voices have argued that NASA could use such direction right about now—but it is unrealistic to expect the U.S. to reprise one of its greatest accomplishments without the kind of financial commitment that made past glories possible.

About the Author: John Matson is an associate editor at Scientific American focusing on space, physics and mathematics. Follow on Twitter @jmtsn.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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  1. 1. bjnicholls 12:52 pm 01/26/2012

    It’s most certainly not admirable to cynically propose grandiose goals without also addressing how to pay for them. There’s no way to shoestring a permanent moon base, much less human exploration of Mars. And it’s even less likely that big space goals will happen as U.S.-only projects.

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  2. 2. SpoonmanWoS 2:38 pm 01/26/2012

    Typical Republican nonsense. They cut funding, increase regulations and bureaucracy and then complain that what comes out the other end is crap. They do it with all social programs so that when they fail, they can say “See, the government isn’t efficient! We can’t rely on them!”

    Oh, and great plan, Newt. Let’s go with six sigma. That’s provided SOOOOOOO many benefits to all of the companies that have implemented.

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  3. 3. Just some guy 2:48 pm 01/26/2012

    The only way Newt could help the space program is if we could harness his mouth to an engine for Blovio-drive.

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  4. 4. David N'Gog 3:11 pm 01/26/2012

    There seems to be much less purpose as of now to building a moonbase than one on mars.

    There is currently no known economic reason to colonize the moon- and any moon base will be eternally dependant on Earth.

    Might as well save the expense and go to Mars. There, theoretically at least, there could be financial gain, they could be self sufficient- all the materials they need are there not requiring constant shipments from Earth.

    There is more significant gravity than on the moon- one reason base planning on the moon not a good test idea for mars.

    If you send someone to the moon- they’re going to expect to come back. Buzz Aldrin’s Mars proposals are a one-way trip. Something for which many would volunteer- to lay down the groundworks of a Mars colony.

    The moon currently seems a silly political distraction.

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  5. 5. bigbopper 4:58 pm 01/26/2012

    Probably the cheapest way to get to Mars would be for someone to volunteer to go one-way.

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  6. 6. kfreels 5:22 pm 01/26/2012

    Has anyone seriously considered how much the cost could be brought down if you implement a maximum height of 3 feet tall for astronauts? The reduced weight, food, oxygen and water for half-size astronauts and the reduced fuel weight to lift it all would allow for a much more efficient system at a greatly reduced cost.

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  7. 7. jack.123 11:19 pm 01/26/2012

    Here’s how you pay for it.You set up a corparation such as the Space Mining Corp..Everyone that puts 100.00 in get’s an equal share of the future profits.No one get’s more than one share.Everybody on Earth would be allowed to buy a share.This would provide 100′s of billions of dollars of investment capital,with the whole thing being ran by the United Nations with oversite being done by the security council.Once the profits reach a certain point the rest of the people on Earth who can’t afford to buy a share would be given a half a share untill their profits pay for a whole share.They wouldn’t recieve any money till their share is paid for.The destination would be a nearby asteroid to begin with where the mining operation’s would get on its feet returning rare Earth metals back to Earth.It would also provide materials for building the next generation of ships to go to Mars and other asteroids with no cost of putting these things in orbit it will be much cheaper to to go to other places in the solar system.

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  8. 8. sault 1:28 am 01/27/2012

    Just a cynical ploy to win the Florida primary…and Republican poolsters know that a small, but significant, portion of the population will vote for whomever they think will launch the first Mars mission. Do I think it is a worthy goal? Sure. Do I think the Republican party can get their Anti-Science Syndrome to go into remission long enough to pull it off? Not likely. Remember, these are the same people that can’t understand how dumping billions of tons of CO2 into the air won’t cause problems, so I doubt if they respect the Scientific Method thouroughly enough to even begin planning a viable Mars mission.

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  9. 9. Nag nostic 1:52 am 01/27/2012

    Good ‘Ol sault, here again, serving up his trademark steaming piles of liberal dogma.
    This time around, sault must’ve detected a certain lack of leftist snarkiness in an article about Newt Gingrich, of all people. Golly, a Sciam article about a prominent Republican, and no predictably liberal dogma anywhere to be seen.
    “Well”, says sault, “This cannot stand! I shall do what is scientifically necessary and serve up heaping piles of leftist bile, in order to bring balance to my world. I cannot abide my Scientific American being anything other than a reliable and shrill liberal mouthpiece.”

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  10. 10. jcramer 2:37 am 01/27/2012

    jack.123, you’re joking, right?

    Rare Earth metals are not that rare on earth. An investment in moon mining would most likely be for litium-3.

    The scientific value of a moon base is much less than it’s cost. I also don’t think it will inspire many children to study science. If the LHC and unmanned space research such as from the James Webb Space Telescope can’t inspire children, why would a moon base (i.e. been there, done that, yawn for most children)?

    I am not saying there is no value, but just that we can get a bigger scientific bang for our buck elsewhere. It’s such a shame that we live in a world of limited resources and we must pick and choose.

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  11. 11. jcramer 2:45 am 01/27/2012


    Yes, it’s very amusing how scientific priorities are made by people that do not believe in science. The primary purpose of Newt’s moon base is American prestige–beat the Chinese. Conservatives eat that we vs them stuff up–I guess that’s why they like war.

    I find it to be nonsense that Newt believes the private sector to undertake his grandoise goal. Would that be with grandoise government subsidies? A space industrial complex? How much of NASA’s budget currently goes to private sector contracts.

    If there was money to be made, corporations would already be on the moon. What would be the time horizon of the first profits to be made? Would any corporation take that type of financial risk? There are no tax breaks until profits are made because only corporate profits are taxed.

    If it wasn’t for Newt Gingrich, we would have the Superconducting Super Collider operating south of Dallas by now. It was Newt’s leadership that cancelled that project in 1993 after $2 billion had already been spent. We have the tunnels, land, and facilities. Why doesn’t Newt correct his terrible decision? I guess he just might do that when he is campaigning in Texas two months from now.

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  12. 12. jcramer 2:57 am 01/27/2012

    Also the private sector knows no borders. Can you really say Apple is an American company with 700,000 people in China making it’s products. Would Virgin Atlantic not be allowed to compete for NASA prizes? If not, that’s not free markets. Isn’t that why Eric Canton growled at President Obama when he said we should stop subsidizing outsourcing?

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  13. 13. CentralIllinoisGuy 5:25 am 01/27/2012

    Actually, when I think of Lunar bases and such, I tend to recall Heinlein’s ‘The Moon Is A Harsh Mistress’ for an example of how the initial colonization might turn out.

    As for establishing a self-supporting base on Mars and its moons, I think I would trust the judgment of Buzz Aldrin and various other science writers over the judgment of Gingrich. Any space ship capable of traveling to Mars will probably entail either nuclear fission propulsion or the newly developed ion engine. Also, a Mars base will probably have to be an international effort, unless Newt is prepared to significantly hike personal and corporate income taxes.

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  14. 14. Wayne Williamson 5:30 pm 01/28/2012

    I think its so funny that space enthusiasts think that living on a moon or a planet is where we will really end up…wake up…growing up I lived on scifi to…but then reality crept in…read 30 or 40 years of thinking about it. There is no reason to be gravity bound…in fact it is a hindrance…Just some thoughts…

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