WHITTINGTON: Newt Gingrich’s Plan For A Private Space Race Is A Shaky One

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Mark Whittington Contributor
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Is a private competition the right way to encourage Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos in their race to the moon? Instead of tasking NASA to mount expeditions to the moon, the idea is to offer money to the first private group to land on the lunar surface and establish a base.

Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich apparently believes the concept would work. Reports indicate he has a plan to offer $2 billion for the first private group to accomplish what NASA proposes to spend tens of billions of dollars on with Project Artemis. Gingrich developed the latest concept with Air Force Lt. Gen. Steven Kwast and former music publicist Howard Bloom.

Unfortunately, the plan is a shaky one. Gingrich has been a long-term backer of using prize competitions to advance space exploration. In the 1990s he proposed a “Mars Prize” that would have awarded $20 billion to the first private group to land people on Mars. When he ran for president in 2012, Gingrich proposed an ambitious program that would return humans to the moon using prizes. The Mars Prize never got off the ground. Mitt Romney mercilessly mocked Gingrich’s 2012 moon base idea. The ridicule eventually drove Gingrich from the race.

Space prizes were attempted in the real world on a much smaller scale with mixed results. The Ansari X-Prize began early in the century. The competition awarded $10 million to the first private group to fly into space twice inside two weeks. A group led by aerospace entrepreneur Burt Rutan won the prize in October 2004 using an air-launched rocket plane. The competitors developed $100 million in technology on that $10 million investment.

At the time, British businessman Sir Richard Branson thought that he could use Rutan’s concept to create the first space tourism business within a short time. Fifteen years and a lot of money and effort later, Branson is only now getting ready to fly the well-heeled and adventurous on suborbital barnstorming jaunts.

The Google Lunar X-Prize began in 2007. The competition would have awarded $20 million to the first private team to land a robotic probe on the moon, return images and video from the lunar surface, and move 500 meters from the original landing site. By 2018, five groups were still in the running when Google shut the competition down. No one had been able to mount a moon landing despite Google extending the deadline several times

SpaceIL, the Israeli team, tried to land on the moon in early 2019, only to see its lunar lander, the Beresheet, crash-land on the moon. Several other teams are still trying to continue as private endeavors. Astrobotic, which dropped out of the Google Lunar X-Prize, is now proceeding with a moon landing attempt for NASA, scheduled for 2021.

Politics will likely rule out Gingrich’s latest idea for a private moon race, at least with government funding. The former speaker’s concept does not pour a lot of money into key states and congressional districts. Gingrich’s group has presented the private moon race idea to the National Space Council. The White House, NASA, and Congress have declined to comment.

Gingrich’s private moon race prize has attracted the endorsement of none other than SpaceX CEO Elon Musk. Musk is developing a rocket ship he calls Starship, capable of going to low Earth orbit, the moon, and eventually Mars. SpaceX, along with Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin, would surely be the front-runners for any private moon race.

Musk’s endorsement suggests an idea for the Gingrich plan to work. Musk and Bezos are rivals for the position of top commercial space entrepreneur. The two men could get together, and each put up $1 billion to finance the Gingrich “moon prize.” The first company to get to the moon and establish a base would get the whole pot. No government funding would be involved. NASA’s Artemis project would continue as before.

Now that kind of space race would capture the imagination of the world.

Mark Whittington (@MarkWhittington) is the author of Why is It So Hard to Go Back to the Moon? and The Moon, Mars and Beyond. He also operates his own blog, Curmudgeons Corner.

The views and opinions expressed in this commentary are those of the author and do not reflect the official position of The Daily Caller.