GOP elders conflicted about future NASA, commercial space projects

Gene J. Koprowski | Contributor

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.

During a Jan. 26 presidential debate, Romney also lampooned the idea of using private entities to fund a lunar colony, saying, “The idea that corporate America wants to go off to the moon and build a colony there — it may be a big idea, but it’s not a good idea.”

Simberg sees this as pure presidential politics, noting that Romney has the backing of Mike Griffin, a former NASA administrator in the younger Bush’s administration, as well as former aides to Bush’s father who were supporters of space exploration and commercialization.

“I have to wonder how cynical he [Romney] is about this,” Simberg said.

On Monday, CEI released a report that it hopes will take the space debate in a new direction. Called “Homesteading the Final Frontier: A Practical Perspective for Securing Property Rights in Space,” the report called for commercializing space by selling private property rights to companies who would develop, say, a moon colony or Mars base. Simberg, the primary author of the report, also wrote a draft act for Congress to consider. The act would enable homesteading claims in space in much the same way that homesteaders were given land rights in the American West during the 19th Century.

Simberg, who will hold a Capitol Hill briefing on Thursday, said the U.S. should begin to recognize the off-planet land claims of Americans who establish human settlements on the moon, Mars or other bodies in the solar system, provide cheap commercial transportation between their settlements and Earth, and offer land for sale.

These claim rights would “transform” mankind’s perception of space, which is often treated as a scientific preserve instead of a frontier for exploration and resource development.

Some conservatives welcomed the proposal.

Robert Poole, director of transportation policy at the libertarian Reason Foundation, said, “We’d better start getting serious about such property rights if we’re serious about opening the space frontier.”

Entrepreneurs such as Sir Richard Branson, the founder of Virgin Atlantic Airlines, are already moving forward with plans to commercialize space, offering wealthy vacationers commercial flights — that may start as soon as later this year — from New Mexico to low earth orbit.

Socialists in Space

But the Washington establishment seems disinterested in commercial space for now, preferring to explore plans to build a new launch vehicle to replace the retired space shuttle fleet rather than let private entrepreneurs take over the whole endeavor. This may be to build pork barrel funding projects in states that have historically had government contracts for space projects, such as Florida, Alabama, Texas and Utah, Simberg told The DC.

“Congress wants to keep pork barrel spending going,” he said. “It costs $500 billion for us to launch 500 astronauts into space. Do the math: That’s $1 billion per astronaut. That’s a lot of work for government contractors. Those Republican politicians who call themselves conservatives from Utah and Alabama and Florida and Texas are socialists when it comes to space.”

The private sector, Simberg said, could explore space more cost-effectively than NASA: “I hope, at a minimum, all of this initiates a national discussion on why we should, as American taxpayers, be spending this much on space. We’re trying to change the conversation and to get Washington to think differently about space policy than it has in the past. There is no longer a Cold War driving us. We need a national conversation about why we are in space and what we want to accomplish there.”

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