Monday, January 23, 2012

Gingrich Plans Space Policy Address

Republican presidential candidate Newt Gingrich.

Republican presidential candidate Newt Gingrich said Sunday he plans to give "a visionary speech" Wednesday when he appears at Brevard Community College.

Riding the momentum of his South Carolina win on Saturday, Newt Gingrich said Sunday he planned a week of big speeches offering “big solutions for a big country.”

“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,” the former House Speaker said on C-SPAN’s “Washington Journal.”

Two years ago, Gingrich co-authored an opinion article that supported President Barack Obama's plan to rely on commercial launch services to reach the International Space Station.

Despite the shrieks you might have heard from a few special interests, the Obama administration’s budget for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration deserves strong approval from Republicans. The 2011 spending plan for the space agency does what is obvious to anyone who cares about man’s future in space and what presidential commissions have been recommending for nearly a decade.

Gingrich has been sharply critical of NASA on the campaign trail.

In June, Gingrich said in a candidate debate that NASA "ought to be getting out of the way and encouraging the private sector."

For those who missed it, Gingrich accused NASA's bureaucracy of wasting hundreds of billions of dollars that it's spent since the 1969 moon landing. Without such waste, he said, "we would probably today have a permanent station on the moon, three or four permanent stations in space, a new generation of lift vehicles."

NASA is "standing in the way" of a "new cycle of opportunities" when it "ought to be getting out of the way and encouraging the private sector," said the former House speaker.

In his 2007 book Real Change, Gingrich wrote that NASA had hijacked the "great space adventure":

One of the great disappointments of my life has been the hijacking of the great space adventure by the NASA bureaucracy. Space should be an area in which American innovation, creativity, and entrepreneurship are producing constant breakthroughs that increase our economic capability, improve our quality of life, and raise our prestige around the world. Instead, space has been hijacked by dull, inefficient, and unimaginative bureaucracies and transformed into an expensive, risk-adverse, and sad undertaking.

I propose a dramatically bolder approach. NASA currently has plans to spend twenty years getting to Mars at a cost estimated of up to $450 billion. A very significant amount of that time and money will be spent studying, planning, and thinking. We would get much further much faster if we simply established two prizes: a tax-free $5 billion prize for the first permanent lunar base and a tax-free $20 billion prize for the first team to get to Mars and back.

How all this will play on the Space Coast is unclear.

For decades, Brevard County's economy has been hitched to that "dull, inefficient and unimaginative" NASA bureaucracy. Many locals falsely blame Obama for cancelling the Space Shuttle program, even though Shuttle was cancelled by President George W. Bush in January 2004 after the Columbia disaster. In any case, space worker union representatives disparage commercial space, one claiming that "privatization of the space program will never work."

Anecdotally, I've heard and read some locals rooting for SpaceX test flights to fail, as they want NASA to maintain its monopoly on access to space.

So I don't think there will be much support here in Brevard County for Gingrich's privatization of space access. And if he bashes Obama's space policy, he'll look like a hypocrite after endorsing it two years ago.

It's curious that Gingrich would promise a return to the "John F. Kennedy tradition," because that "tradition" gave birth to the bloated bureaucracy he disparages today.

Kennedy's famous 1961 speech proposing man on the Moon by the end of the 1960s was actually a long and somewhat boring address to Congress listing a number of ideas to end a mild economic recession. Kennedy, essentially, proposed a stimulus program, and the Moon mission was one idea. The Moon proposal was near the end of the speech, only a few paragraphs. Those in attendance barely reacted at all, perhaps bored by the long and somewhat uninspiring speech.

As detailed in John Logdson's John F. Kennedy and the Race to the Moon, the Moon program was largely about restoring American prestige in the wake of Soviet space spectacles. Kennedy was not a space visionary. He was a Cold Warrior who feared looking weak on Communism.

In 1963, as the NASA budget spiraled out of control, Kennedy ordered three separate reviews of the Apollo program, perhaps looking for a way out of his commitment. In September 1963, Kennedy proposed that the U.S. and U.S.S.R merge their space programs, and even toyed with the idea of justifying Apollo as a matter of "national security" rather than simply "prestige."

Kennedy was assassinated in November 1963, and the Moon program became a memorial to his legacy, so we'll never know whether he would have pulled the plug on Apollo, perhaps during his second four-year term.

If this is the model Gingrich plans to propose, it certainly contradicts his past rhetoric criticizing NASA bureaucracy.

Nor do Gingrich's remarks address the real cause, namely the penchant for pork among his former colleagues in Congress.

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