COMMENTARY | The all-important Florida primary could create the most closely watched "Space Race" since the United States and the Soviet Union competed for aerospace glory. And in this battle, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich is likely to blast off past ex-Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney.
As Newt Gingrich announced a John F. Kennedy-like speech on space exploration for Florida, cynics are likely to see it as nothing more than election year politics designed to appeal to a narrow slice of voters in a key state. But Gingrich has always been pro-space since he came to Congress.
In the 1980s, Newt Gingrich helped found the Congressional Space Caucus, designed to get legislators of both parties to support space exploration and ward off budget cuts, according to The Space Review by Jeff Foust. Foust writes that Gingrich was also "a member of the Board of Governors of the National Space Society. In several debates and campaign appearances over the last several months Gingrich, in response to questions and sometimes of his own volition, has brought up space policy."
This is more than just public talk as well. Gingrich pushed hard for space exploration behind closed doors in negotiations with the Clinton Administration in the 1990s, according to the U.S. News and World Report in a 2008 article. "Gingrich viewed it [the abortion issue] as a bargaining chip that could be used to exact concessions from Democrats on issues that were more important to him, such as increased spending for defense and space exploration," the U.S. News and World Report staff wrote.
Romney himself is no real fan of the space program, according to Foust. Though he endorsed Bush's space speech in 2004, he has never supported increasing NASA's budget. He opposes the idea of a lunar mining colony, and has used space spending to tease Gingrich, calling him "Newt Skywalker." Romney has changed his tune since coming to the Sunshine State, but he's more of a "Johnny-come-lately" on the issue, rather than a John Glenn on space enthusiasm.
In a neck-and-neck nomination battle, the Republican nominees are looking for any votes that they can. And Romney's early anti-space jibes against Gingrich were good for laughs in Iowa, but are likely to put him in the category with the Russians, looking at the American Apollo 11 moon landing with envy.