The Corner

An Out-of-This-World Debate Question

Space-policy analysts were as surprised as everyone else at one of the more obscure, but also more intelligent, questions asked in last night’s Republican debate. It was intelligent in both the nature of the question itself and in the candidate at whom it was directed. Space-policy analyst and journalist Jeff Foust has the story over at the Space Politics web site:

The discussion was kicked off by a question about the impending retirement of the space shuttle and that, in the words of WMUR-TV’s Jean Mackin, “President Obama effectively killed government-run spaceflight to the International Space Station and wants to turn it over to private companies.” Thus, she asked, “what role should the government play in future space exploration?”

Shockingly, given the ignorant hysteria on this subject over the past year and a half, she actually stated the policy accurately. The new policy does effectively kill government-run spaceflight to the ISS. But critics have drawn the grand and hyperbolic inference from this simple fact that the Obama administration proposes to end all government-funded human spaceflight, when in fact the intent was to let competitive commercial enterprise take over the now-mundane (after 50 years) task of getting people to and from orbit, and refocus NASA on the hard stuff — getting humans beyond earth orbit.

But beyond the question itself, what was even more interesting was Mackin’s apparent knowledge that former House speaker Newt Gingrich would have something interesting to say on this subject, and neither she nor the audience was likely disappointed with his answer:

Well, sadly—and I say this sadly because I’m a big fan of going into space, and I actually worked to get the shuttle program to survive at one point—NASA has become an absolute case study in why bureaucracy can’t innovate. If you take all the money we spent at NASA since we landed on the Moon, and you apply that money for incentives for the private sector, we would today probably have a permanent station on the Moon, three or four permanent stations in space, a new generation of lift vehicles, and instead, what we’ve had is bureaucracy after bureaucracy after bureaucracy, and failure after failure. I think it’s a tragedy, because younger Americans ought to have the excitement of thinking that they, too, could be part of reaching out to a new frontier.

You know, you had asked earlier, John [King, the moderator], about this idea of limits because we’re a developed country. We’re not a developed country. The scientific future is going to open up and we’re at the beginning of a whole new cycle of extraordinary opportunities, and unfortunately NASA is standing in the way of it, when NASA ought to be getting out of the way and encouraging the private sector.

What most people don’t realize, even inside the Beltway, but what Mackin apparently does, is that few people in public life have thought as long or as deeply and seriously about space policy as Newt Gingrich. Thirty years ago, as a young congressman from Georgia, he was on the board of directors of the L-5 Society, a group formed in the late seventies to promote the settlement of space by humanity. Last year, after the announcement of the decision to end the disastrous Constellation program, he and former House colleague and former chairman of the House Science Committee Bob Walker (R., Pa.) (who held a press conference with me on the Hill in February in support of more competition in human-spaceflight procurement) wrote an editorial in support of the new Obama space policy.

Gingrich gave an interesting interview on the subject about five years ago, in which he promoted more encouragement of the private sector and competition, and more use of prizes as incentives. He concluded the interview with this exchange:

TSR: Many argue that the space program, and especially manned flight, has no real purpose. Many of those who make that argument see putting people on other worlds as something akin to a wildly expensive stunt. How do you see a vigorous space effort fitting into overall US economic strategy? By 2040, will humans be living and working on three worlds, plus platforms orbiting in free space? If so, how important will those far-flung activities be to the US economy, and to the general human economy?

Gingrich: For those who see manned space as having no role, they would have thought the Wright Brothers were irrelevant in 1903. The human race has a destiny to spread across the solar system and then across the stars. I prefer that destiny be led by free people.

Agree or not, that is a vision, and one of the reasons that Newt is an unconventional politician (though it’s also probably one of the reasons that he will never be president), and vision is a quality that wasn’t much on display in the other candidates’ answers.

Michael Barone has a good take this morning:

His answer on space policy was intellectually serious and genuinely interesting but probably went over the heads of most viewers.

Sadly, it probably went over the heads of the other candidates as well, who didn’t seem to really know how to respond. Tim Pawlenty didn’t quite understand the question, and objected to the straw man of “eliminating human spaceflight,” though he agreed that government/private partnerships were important. Mitt Romney started to elaborate, to point out that some people thought that the government could do things better than the private sector, but wasn’t allowed to complete the thought by moderator John King, who clearly wanted to move on to more important topics, like “American Idol or Dancing with the Stars,” or “Jennifer or Bailey?”

And of course, the policy confusion and hyperbole continues even today in the wake of this latest reminder:

Republican presidential candidates agree: No more federal money for human space flight

The headline isn’t misleading — it’s blatantly false. The issue was not whether or not there would be federal money for human space flight; it was only in how it would be best spent to achieve that goal. Fortunately, others are more astute. The Tea Party in Space, an organization recently created to develop a robust and vigorous space policy around the principles of fiscal conservatism and American exceptionalism, applauded both the question and its responses from the candidates.

In any event, I suppose we should be thankful that John King didn’t ask the space-policy question. It probably would have been “Star Wars or Star Trek“?

Rand Simberg blogs at Transterrestrial Musings.

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