GOP elders conflicted about future NASA, commercial space projects

Former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich recently sent a number of conservatives into orbit with his comments about building a U.S. space colony on the moon.

But despite the jokes, Gingrich, some science policy analysts told The Daily Caller, may have launched a new, national discussion within the conservative movement about what America’s proper role should be in space.

The debate, they said, could reshape NASA or fuel further commercial space exploration.

This week, the Competitive Enterprise Institute, a Washington, D.C.-based free-market think tank, released a report that called on the U.S. government to revise its dated Cold War-era space policies and determine why the U.S. should still spend billions of dollars annually on space exploration.

“We’re trying to get a national dialogue going,” Rand Simberg, a science policy scholar at CEI, told TheDC. “Mitt Romney used Gingrich’s comments to lampoon him and many went along. But Presidents Reagan and George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush have, during the last few decades, all had grand plans for space exploration or visits to Mars. The unanswered question has always been, ‘Why should we do this as a nation?’”

Jeffrey Manber, the Reagan administration director of the Office of Space Commerce at the U.S. Department of Commerce, said he generally agrees with CEI’s goal, saying that the U.S., since the end of the Soviet Union, has had an attitude of “why not” toward space, rather than having a “consistent, commerce-centric, post-Cold War policy.”

Republican presidents have historically had national defense and national economics on their minds when it comes to space policy. George W. Bush embraced a new national space policy in 2006, calling for exploration of the moon, Mars and “beyond.”

During the 1980s, Reagan launched the Strategic Defense Initiative, mocked as “Star Wars” by his foes, along with plans for the International Space Station project.

George H.W. Bush later planned what he called the Space Exploration Initiative and formed a National Space Council with the goal of commercializing space. A number of his national security directives dealt with finding a way to commercialize the galaxy and nearby planets.

‘Moon Base Elders’

But today, with federal deficits in the trillions of dollars here on Earth and a Democrat in the White House, few conservatives are so keen on commercializing space.

When, prior to the Florida GOP primary, Gingrich asserted that, if elected president, he would have a “permanent base on the moon by the end of my second term,” the remark led to mocking from a number of conservatives and liberals alike. The National Review printed a parody of Gingrich and his wife, Callista, portraying them as flaky “elders” of a cultish moon colony. Jon Stewart, the left-leaning comic, joked that Newt wanted to leave the planet.

Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, a rival GOP candidate for president, was equally disdainful.

“I spent 25 years in business. If I had a business executive come to me and say they wanted to spend a few hundred billion dollars to put a colony on the moon, I’d say, ‘You’re fired!’” Romney said to Gingrich during a presidential debate before the Florida GOP primary.