Could it be a coincidence that GOP presidential candidate Newt Gingrich describes his upcoming speech on space policy Wednesday as a "visionary" address "in the John F. Kennedy tradition?"
Perhaps not. After all 2012 is the 50th anniversary of Kennedy's iconic "we choose to go to the moon in this decade" speech, where he performed a presidential Babe Ruth. Like the Sultan of Swat, Kennedy dared to point out a seemingly impossible goal and swing for it - hitting a home run.
Gingrich, aiming to maintain political momentum after Saturday's primary victory in South Carolina, is expected to outline his vision for America in space following the U.S. loss of its more than 30-year-old shuttle program.
Reversing the falling numbers of Florida’s space-affiliated jobs will be a likely message of Gingrich's speech, say industry experts. But more than that, they say the address will be Gingrich's chance to make a very public and detailed commitment to what American space exploration might look like under a Gingrich administration.
The former House speaker offered a hint during Monday’s debate when he suggested cutting bureaucratic fat from NASA and using cash prizes as incentives to reach national space goals.
“There’s every reason to believe that there’s 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 because they’d be drawn to achieve these prizes: going back to the moon permanently, getting to Mars as rapidly as possible, building a series of space stations and developing commercial space,” Gingrich said. “There are a whole series of things we could do that could be dynamic that are more than just better government bureaucracy.”
The idea would save Washington hundreds of billions of dollars, says top Gingrich adviser and ex-Pennsylvania Rep. Bob Walker. “It may well be that if we put a prize on the table that encouraged entrepreneurs and adventurers to go do it - and develop all the technologies - that we ought to offer them a prize that would be worth their while.”
Now age 68, Gingrich’s generation came of age as America’s space program triumphed over troubled growing pains to achieve historic orbital successes during the Mercury and Gemini manned space missions.
Those who know Gingrich well say he sees space exploration in sweeping historical terms - a new frontier as important as the Old West and comparable to the building of the transcontinental railroad.
"He's not for tripling the NASA budget,” says James Muncy, longtime Gingrich adviser and friend. “He's for investing in space in a way that will open the frontier and make it possible for more and more Americans over time to go live there and work there and prosper there."
Early in Gingrich’s congressional tenure he supported increases in NASA’s budget. He supported funding for the International Space Station and worked with President Clinton to preserve funding in the 1990s.
However, now, that support for funding NASA appears to have diminished.
At a GOP debate last summer, Gingrich accused NASA's bureaucracy of wasting hundreds of billions of dollars since the 1969 moon landing. Without the waste, he said the U.S. “would probably today have a permanent station on the moon, three or four permanent stations in space, a new generation of lift vehicles." Instead, NASA has produced "failure after failure," he said.
Gingrich’s presidential rival, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, has warmed up to space exploration as Florida’s Tuesday primary closes in.
During a December debate, some say Romney appeared to mock the former House Speaker’s support for future lunar mining colonies. "I'm not in favor of spending that kind of money to do that," Romney told Gingrich.
At Monday’s debate in Florida, Romney said space exploration “should certainly be a priority.”
Then Romney went on to blame Obama, saying his lack of “plans for NASA” have “failed miserably the people of Florida.”
He called for NASA’s mission to be determined by a president and a collection of people from NASA, Air Force, universities and commercial enterprises. Romney called for a mission that “excites our young people about the potential of space” with commercial potential” that “will pay for itself down the road.”
Space industry analyst Jeff Foust of spacepolitics.com told CNN that Romney was talking about a "centralized, in some respect, space program centered on NASA but also bringing in the military and commercial sectors to help select priorities and to help fund those programs. Gingrich is talking basically about getting rid of a lot of the NASA bureaucracy setting out some large prizes and telling the private sector, 'OK get to it.' That's a fairly strong contrast between the two."
Another GOP candidate, Rick Santorum, has been virtually silent on space issues, says Foust, although he may offer insight into his space policy views during this week's Florida campaign stops. Likewise, Ron Paul hasn't said a whole lot about it, Foust says. "His Libertarian political philosophy would suggest that he would be opposed to big government programs." But Foust says Paul has voted in Congress to support some NASA programs.
President Obama cut NASA’s Constellation program - which was aimed at returning Americans to the moon - but preserved Orion, a multi-purpose manned space vehicle designed for long distance missions.
Two years ago, Gingrich came out in support for Obama’s 2011 NASA budget in an editorial co-authored by Walker. Specifically, the two praised a proposed program to allow private companies to transport astronauts to and from the International Space Station.