America no longer has a manned space program. Just a few decades after landing men on the moon, the U.S. has put itself in a position where it must now purchase seats on Russian spacecraft. This is a sad reality that can be reversed if private enterprise can be enticed to step in. That's what former House Speaker Newt Gingrich says in his new book Breakout: Pioneers of the Future, Prison Guards of the Past, and the Epic Battle That Will Decide America’s Fate.
During his presidential campaign, Gingrich called for establishing a manned base on the moon. Although he was criticized in the media for floating a seemingly impractical proposal, returning to the moon has been official government policy for some time. The Russians, Chinese, and other international competitors are all pressing ahead with ambitious plans that could leave the U.S. behind. Gingrich places the blame squarely on NASA.
“The modern NASA is so risk-averse and so heavily burdened with safety processes, management, political meddling and institutional inertia that it takes decades for new programs to get off the ground,” Gingrich writes.
As an alternative to spending billions of dollars on a disappointing space program, Gingrich proposes withholding 10 percent of NASA’s budget and setting aside this money for prizes that could be awarded to private companies that produce meaningful results. (He estimates this would amount to about $18 million over a decade.) This arrangement could induce serious entrepreneurs to launch a mission to Mars, the speaker says. There is some precedent here. Since the earliest days of aviation, prizes have been awarded to enterprising individuals like Charles Lindberg who flew the first nonstop flight from New York to Paris.
While he is critical of NASA for creating a “bureaucratic mess,” Gingrich does credit the agency for its unmanned efforts, which have included robotic missions to Mars. There is an argument to be made that NASA does the best it can with the resources it has and that the failure lies with Congress and successive administrations.
There are economic and national security ramifications that flow from the space program. It’s hard to imagine America remaining a preeminent world power if other countries develop robust initiatives that include manned missions. That’s why Gingrich’s ideas are worth careful consideration.
The prize model has already had some success in space. The X Prize Foundation offered a $10 million prize for two manned suborbital flights in a reusable spacecraft. This resulted in SpaceShipOne, which was launched from a jet plane back in 2004.
The big advantage of Gingrich’s proposal is that taxpayers would not foot the bill until there are tangible results. It is time for America to get moving again with a serious manned space program before others become dominant.