It may have been too much space talk on the Space Coast in Florida during the Republican primary that cost Newt Gingrich his presidential primary momentum. After all the dramatic yet conservative candidate has a penchant for making reasonable, scientifically plausible policy sound like science fiction.
In the run up to the Florida primary the former Speaker of the House called for colonies on the moon by 2020. In a field of mostly anti-science candidates his pro-science stance stood out from the pack. Making several references to John F. Kennedy’s big thinking to put a man on the moon probably didn’t help his case either.
After calling for the moon to become a possible 51st state in the union most people started to dismiss his space ambitions as little more than pipe dreams.In a Florida debate in late January Gingrich said, “By the end of my second term we will have the first permanent base on the moon.”
Romney quickly retorted saying he would fire anyone at a company of his who wanted to spend billions of dollars that way.
And it appears that Florida Republicans agreed that space is outside the realm of their earthly politics. Romney trounced Gingrich after many thought it would be a close race.
But scientists and science policy experts say that Gingrich’s space base isn’t so off base after all.
Until three years ago that was U.S. policy. Both Republican presidents with the last name Bush endorsed lunar colonies and spent billions on the idea. President Obama canceled the moon program three years ago after the economy plunged into recession and projected costs of returning to the moon rose well beyond $700 billion.
George Washington University space policy director Scott Pace, who was a NASA associate administrator under George W. Bush says that Gingrich’s moon mission was feasible in 2005. But it is no longer. Pace, who is a Romney space policy advisor, says that going to the moon is definitely doable but figuring out when is the trick.
While campaigning in Florida before the primary Gingrich said, “Some of you may like it and you may dislike it, but I gave the boldest explanation of going into space since John F. Kennedy in 1961.” He added, “I believe in an America of big ideas and big solutions.”
Gingrich’s science-based ideas may have been too big for the Florida electorate to swallow.
It’s not to say that the other Republican candidates are against going to space. On the contrary, all the candidates support a robust private space industry. Here the candidates sound eerily similar to their political foe, President Obama. Since NASA scrapped its shuttle program which left thousands of Florida space workers unemployed all eyes have turned to private companies to fulfill that mission.
After all getting commercial space companies to take over the job of getting Americans to low-Earth orbit is a key part of the Obama space plan. But money is still the issue. In the current budget NASA received $406 million for private space programs though the Administration asked for $805 million.
Still, Gingrich stands further afield than the other candidates who remain quiet on science issues.
Former Clinton science adviser Neal Lane says Gingrich is pro-science. He credits Gingrich with preserving federal science research from big budget cuts in the 1990s.
Lane doesn’t agree with all of Gingrich’s ideas but he says they aren’t crazy.
Syracuse University science policy professor Henry Lambright tells the Associate Press, “[Gingrich] is on the edge of mainstream thinking about big science.”
While campaigning in Iowa in December, Gingrich made a plea to map the brain to better understand neuro-degenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s. There, he made it personal, wiping a tear off his cheek as he described watching his mother go from being a vibrant woman to one wracked with physical and mental problems in a nursing home.
Then he said his “whole emphasis on brain science” was based on his mother’s depression and mental illness. He said, “It’s not a theory. It’s in fact, my mother.”
In Seattle, the Allen Institute for Brain Science is hard at work mapping the brains of mice to help better understand the human brain. Large undertakings like brain mapping is a common scientific method to evaluate a large problem. Scientists have done similar projects mapping the human genome and trying to understand the basic biology of cancer.
But Arizona State University science policy professor Dan Sarewitz tells the Associated Press, “The trouble is that, in the past, it hasn’t paid off as promised.”
Those big important ideas with little short term pay off seem to sour voters.
Gingrich also raised a few eyebrows about his paranoid preoccupation with electromagnetic pulses wiping out electricity in the U.S. In 2009 he said that “may be the greatest threat we face…we could in fact lose our civilization in a matter of seconds.”
He also stunned many political allies when he appeared seated next to former Speaker Nancy Pelosi in an ad about climate change. Gingrich also wrote a book about the subject, called A Contract with the Earth.
But it seems that his dreams of space are the ones getting him in trouble this primary season.
Alan Stern, a vice president for research and development at the Southwest Research Institute and NASA’s chief of space sciences under George W. Bush says the media criticism of Gingrich’s space plans is unfair. He calls Gingrich a big thinker and a pioneer. Stern says, “When a government guy or politician talks that way, they just get clobbered about being unrealistic and that’s unfortunate.”
And, that’s exactly what happened in Florida.
Exerpts from the Florida Republican debate about Space.