Gingrich, the former speaker of United States House of Representatives, promised to establish a permanent base on the moon by 2020 if he is elected president. The issue figured prominently at the second and last Republican presidential debate held ahead of the Florida primary on January 31. At a campaign event in Florida on Wednesday, Gingrich said he would like to have "an American on the moon before the Chinese get there."
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"I believe by the use of prizes, by the use of incentives, by opening up the spaceport so that it's available on a ready basis for commercial flight, by using common sense -- for example, the Atlas V could easily be fixed into a man-capable vehicle so you didn't have to rely on a Russian launch or Chinese launch. There are many things you can do to leverage accelerating the development of space," he said.
"That's an enormous expense," said Mitt Romney, the former governor of Massachusetts and one of Gingrich's Republican rivals. "Right now I want to be spending money here. Of course the space coast has been badly hurt, and I believe in a very vibrant and strong space programme," he said.
"I believe in a manned space programme. I'd like to see whether they believe in the same thing. I'm not looking for a colony on the moon. I think the cost of that would be in the hundreds of billions, if not trillions. I'd rather be rebuilding housing here in the US," Romney said.
"I agree that we need to bring good minds from the private sector much more involved in NASA than the government bureaucracy we have. But let's just be honest. We run a $ 1.2 trillion deficit right now," he added.
"We're borrowing 40 cents of every dollar, and to go out there and promise new programmes and big ideas, that's a great thing to maybe get votes, but it's not a responsible thing when you have to go out and say that we have to start cutting programs, not talking about how to grow them," said Rick Santorum, former Pennsylvania senator, another Republican White House hopeful.
"I don't think we should go to the moon," said Ron Paul, the Congressman from Texas. "I think we maybe should send some politicians up there at times. But I went into the Air Force in 1962 and studied air space medicine; actually had a daydream about maybe becoming the first physician to go into space. That didn't occur."
"But I see space -- the amount of money we spend on space -- the only part that I would vote for is for national defence purposes; not to explore the moon and go to Mars. I think that's fantastic and I love those ideas," he said.
However, Gingrich differed with all of them. "It is really important to go back to what John F Kennedy said in the May of 1961 when he said, we will go to the moon in this decade. No American had orbited the earth. The technology didn't exist. And a generation of young people went into science and engineering and technology, and they were tremendously excited, and they had a future," he said.
"The programme I envision would probably end up being 90 per cent private sector. But it would be based on a desire to change the government rules and change the government regulations to get NASA out of the business of trying to run rockets and to create a system where it's easy for private sector people to be engaged," he argued.
"I want to see us move from one launch occasionally to six or seven launches a day because so many private enterprises walk up and say, we're prepared to go do it," he said.
"I do not want to be the country that, having gotten to the moon first, turned around and said it doesn't really matter; let the Chinese dominate space; what do we care? I think that is a path of national decline. And I am for America being a great country, not a country in decline," Gingrich said.
Romney said being a businessman; he would fire anyone who came to him with such an idea. "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," he said.
"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," Romney said.