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Newt's 'Zany' Space Policy

I suppose I should be glad that civil space policy has actually become an issue in the presidential campaign. It’s not usually a topic of interest to most people, nor one on which most people’s vote is likely to hinge, so it’s unusual for it to become newsworthy. Unfortunately, though, there hasn’t been a serious discussion about it. Rather, it has merely served as a crude cudgel that Mitt Romney has taken up to knock down his surging rival, Newt Gingrich.

It started  in the debate on December 10th in Des Moines, Iowa. When asked for issues on which he disagreed with the former House speaker, Governor Romney led with a space-related topic: “We could start with his idea to have a lunar colony that would mine minerals from the Moon,” he said. “I’m not in favor of spending that kind of money to do that.” His intent was to ridicule the speaker’s ideas, and he at least partially succeeded, judging by the laughter among some in the audience.

He followed up with another: “He even talked about a series of mirrors that we could put in space that would light our highways at night. I’ve got some better ideas for our resources.”

As I noted at National Review Online the following Monday, these are not current Gingrich policy positions, or campaign talking points, but rather a couple ideas from a book he wrote over a quarter of a century ago that David Brooks had cited in a column at the New York Times the day before the debate. But either Romney himself or his campaign staff apparently decided that it would be politically advantageous to mock Newt’s vision, making his ideas sound too “far out” for America.

In the days after, it became clear that it wasn’t just an off-hand comment, but a calculated ongoing strategy to marginalize Gingrich by reinforcing the narrative that Gingrich is mercurial, with half-baked ideas. Romney started to use the word “zany” to describe the former speaker’s positions. This past Sunday, on Fox News Sunday with Chris Wallace, he doubled down when asked to be more specific on what was “zany” about Gingrich’s ideas:

This was being battled on Capitol Hill and the speaker sat down with Nancy Pelosi and spoke in favor of legislation dealing with climate change. He has been unreliable in those settings and zany, I wouldn’t think you’d call mirrors in space to light highways at night particularly practical or a lunar colony a practical idea. Not at a stage like this.

There are (at least) two problems with this. First, as already noted, Gingrich is no longer advocating orbiting mirrors (an idea by the space visionary Krafft Ehricke going back at least to the seventies). But the other problem is that it is another flip flop for Romney, who seemed quite supportive of lunar activities in his previous run for the presidency, when he offered some remarks at the Kennedy Space Center after a tour of the Shuttle:

…clearly, as I’ve said before, I support the NASA program, the president’s vision program, which consists of a manned space mission back to the moon, as well as an ongoing mission to Mars….

The “president’s vision program” actually consisted of more than a “manned space mission back to the moon.” Though it was being disastrously implemented by NASA at the time, it was actually a program to establish a human lunar base there, one of whose purposes was to “mine minerals” (specifically, water with which to make rocket propellant and help with life support to reduce the costs of space operations). In other words, pretty much what he has been ridiculing Newt for supporting for the past week and a half.

There are implications in Romney’s wording when he assembles the straw men to describe Newt’s positions. When he says “I’m not in favor of spending that kind of money to [build a lunar colony],” (emphasis mine) it implies that he knows what kind of money it is, how much it will cost, and what the value will be. When he says, “not at a stage like this,” he implies that there is some stage at which he might support a lunar “colony,” just not one “like this.” In fact, it would be reasonable to infer from his attacks on Newt’s space policy that he has one of his own, and yet he has never said anything in the campaign about it other than the attacks.

So, Governor, if you want to talk space policy, let’s talk space policy. How about answering some serious questions, instead of pretending that it’s an unserious subject, of no value except to mock your opponent?

In 2008, you said that you supported President Bush’s Vision for Space Exploration, a fundamental part of which was a manned lunar base. Now you criticize Newt Gingrich for the same thing, and imply that it is a frivolity. What happened in the interim to make you change your opinion?

How much do you think that a “lunar colony” would cost? How do you think that Speaker Gingrich would propose to bring one about?  Do you think that he would agree with your characterization of his plans? If you don’t know the answers to these questions, on what basis are you criticizing him?

If we are not going to settle the moon and other locations in the solar system, what in your mind is the purpose of having a human spaceflight program? Why are we doing it?

In 2009, when President Obama came out with a new space policy that emphasized competitive commercial services for crew delivery to orbit, and the development of new technologies that would make human spaceflight beyond earth orbit much more affordable, Newt Gingich was one of the few Republicans to come out in support of it (Bob Walker and Dana Rohrabacher were others). Do you agree with Speaker Gingrich that this is a more promising and cost-effective direction for the program, or do you support the Congress in its demand that NASA spend billions on a giant rocket that won’t fly for many years, and for which no payloads are defined or funded? Or do you have some other proposal?

What would a Romney space policy look like? Given that you’ve elevated the topic in the campaign, I think that those of us to whom space is important deserve to know.