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Observations

Opinion, arguments & analyses from the editors of Scientific American

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

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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.

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

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