|Setting up a base on the moon would cost hundreds of billions of dollars, experts say [GALLO/GETTY]
Forget Iraq, Afghanistan and Palestine – Newt Gingrich wants to colonise the moon.
"By the end of my second term , we will have the first permanent base on the moon and it will be American," the Republican US presidential hopeful told a cheering crowd in Cocoa, Florida, a town with links to the space industry.
A whopping budget deficit and cuts to the military do not seem to have dampened Gingrich’s astronomically expensive plans for a lunar colony with 13,000 residents.
"I want you to help me in Florida and across the country so you can someday say you were there the day it was announced that we’d have commercial space, moon colony and moving toward Mars," he said on Wednesday, comparing himself to John F Kennedy and the Wright Brothers [who invented airplanes].
“We clearly have a capacity that the Russians and the Chinese will never come anywhere close to matching."
Out of this world
Candidates clashed over the space programme, and Gingrich’s plans, during Thursday’s Republican debate.
"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,’" Mitt Romney, Republican front runner, told the audience in response to Gingrich’s plan.
Rick Santorum, another Republican challenger, called Gingrich’s space plans "crass politics" which pandered to voters in Florida without addressing the US’s fiscal problems.
NASA, the organisation which would manage such a scheme, declined to comment on the plans. A spokesman told Al Jazeera the agency could not speak about anything related to the campaign.
"Helium-3 covers the moon’s surface and it would be a viable fuel source to generate power"
- Jeff Foust, editor of spacepolitics.com
Alan Boyle, an award winning science journalist who follows the US space programme, said that just to put humans on the moon would cost more than $100bn.
"Building a base would require significantly more expense," he told Al Jazeera. "Gingrich thinks private-sector innovation would produce some savings", but plans of this nature would "require a dramatic upswing in NASA spending".
Republicans generally claim to detest "big government" spending initiatives – and a moon base, like the military, certainly fits into this category.
In an attempt to deflect criticism of a promise which would almost invariably require massive outlays of federal cash, Gingrich said he will entice the private sector to increase its involvement by offering "prizes", although specific details have not been forthcoming.
"How big would the prizes need to be to stimulate commercial plans for a base?" wondered Jeff Foust, editor of spacepolitics.com. "The space programme has gone through an extended period of uncertainty," he told Al Jazeera.
'Cold War mentality'
During the Cold War and the space race against the former USSR, the US committed about five per cent of its GDP to the Apollo space mission, said Ian O'Neill, a space science producer with Discovery News.
"NASA gets less than half a per cent of today’s GDP; they simply can’t afford this," O'Neill told Al Jazeera. "He is trying to invigorate a Cold War mentality, which is very different from the world we live in today."
Romney, for his part, promised to create a commission of experts to study the space programme. Barack Obama, the US president, established a similar body – the Augustine commission – where experts could make recommendations for NASA’s future.
In 2010, Obama announced plans for a new spacecraft, designed for long journeys, to be operational by 2025. He wants humans to be able to orbit Mars by the mid-2030s.
"Bush, in 2004, wanted to get back to the moon by 2020," Foust said. "NASA was behind schedule, according to Obama’s committee [established in 2009], and [Obama] decided not to develop Constellation – the next generation of space ships – but focused on commercial travel instead."
"Debates about space often blur party lines," he said, adding that no one, including Gingrich, has provided a convincing reason for building a moon base, other than "national prestige".
Major oil companies are some of the only commercial entities with the resources to finance moon projects. Prospects of commercial mining on the moon, specifically related to the energy resource Helium-3, have been cited as a reason for establishing a long-term human presence.
"There is a lot of research going into fusion power plants," O'Neill said of an energy technology that experts hope will work in a similar fashion to the sun, generating plentiful, pollution free power here on earth. "Helium-3 covers the moon’s surface and it would be a viable fuel source to generate power", however, the technology with which to establish fusion reactors with the moon’s plentiful energy source is at least "decades away" he said.