The Space Speech Newt Needs To Give

Many (including me) were predicting that Newt’s space-policy political fiasco would be in the rear-view mirror as the campaign moved beyond Florida. Alas, at least for space enthusiasts if not late-night comedians, it remains in the news, and as an object of continuing mockery and ridicule.

While originally it was only the Romney campaign that was cynically using it as a political cudgel against his opponent (and he continued to do so in Nevada), on Friday Senator Rick Santorum started piling on as well, making it the basis of a sixty-second ad. The night of the Nevada caucuses, which Romney won handily, Saturday Night Live spoofed it as well, in their opening skit.

Newt, naturally, has been on the defensive throughout, trying to explain himself on Meet The Press the next morning:

“I didn’t propose any additional spending,” Gingrich said, noting that Russia, China and India are aggressively focused on their space programs. He believes there needs to be fundamental reform of the U.S. space program that engages the private sector.

A large part of the criticism has been a vigorous massacre of a legion of space-policy straw men, perhaps the most egregious of which is the accusation that Newt’s plans would cost half a trillion dollars, a grossly inflated figure based on a NASA study performed over two decades ago during the first Bush administration, and a conservative conventional-wisdom assessment from John Logsdon, former head of the Space Policy Institute. This is ironic, because Newt has long proposed fundamental NASA reforms that would dramatically reduce the costs of human spaceflight.

At this point, if Newt wants to redeem himself on this issue, he needs to reboot it with another speech, and not an off-the-cuff stream of consciousness that got him into trouble (as it so often does) at the Cape, but an actual prepared speech, laying out his vision, its benefits, and the actual estimated costs. For his consideration, I offer up the speech that I would give if I were him (or at least, in his current political position).

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There has been a great deal of controversy in the last few days on a subject that, in this country, should have been fairly uncontroversial — the greatness of America and its ability to achieve great things. Ever since I gave a speech on my vision for America in space a couple weeks ago, it has been mocked and completely mischaracterized, either out of ignorance, malice, or both, and in doing so, those so mocking have only revealed their own small-minded pedestrian bean-counting lack of both vision for this nation, and their lack of knowledge of either the cost or benefits of opening up space to humanity. Mitt Romney has clearly never given this subject a moment’s thought. To the degree that his campaign has articulated a purpose for space at all, or provided a policy other than getting “top, men,” he has said that the purpose of human spaceflight is to address, quote: “the ‘existential’ objective of understanding the universe and its effects on the Earth, such as climate or the possibility of a ‘catastrophic event’; commercial; the health and well-being of citizens; and defense.”

Note that not a single one of those goals requires sending humans into space. The last three are so vague as to be meaningless in the context of a space program. What does the word “commercial” mean? Who can argue that “the health and well-being of citizens” isn’t a worthy goal, but how does humans in space play a role? And Governor Romney, Dwight Eisenhower established a civil space agency, separate from the Department of Defense, for a reason. We already have a program for defense in space -- it is run by the Air Force and other defense agencies, which have as much money for it as NASA’s total budget, so that makes no sense as a purpose for the space agency.

The first straw man that my opponents accuse me of is wanting NASA to build a lunar colony of thousands of people. Anyone who listened to my speech in Florida knows I never proposed such a thing. I was simply expressing an aspiration to see it happen, and if it did, I proposed that it be eligible for statehood. If it occurs, it will be because it is paying for itself, perhaps by providing goods and services to the space-based economy that will develop off planet as the cost of access to orbit comes down in the coming decades from the growing competitive commercial transportation providers. I was simply proposing that NASA establish a base by 2020, the same thing that George W. Bush proposed, and that Governor Romney supported the last time he ran for president. Such a base would prove out the concepts of the utilization of resources on the moon, such as water for life support and propellants, and other materials, that would allow a reduction in the cost of both getting there and living there, and enable the development of a later colony that could pay for itself.