Gingrich Wants NASA to Increase Prize Funding
Presidential candidate Newt Gingrich speaks at the Republican Leadership Conference in June 2011. Gingrich's plan for the U.S. space program includes greatly increased private competition.
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NASA staff can add prize-judge and prize-purveyor to their job descriptions, according to presidential hopeful Newt Gingrich's vision for the future of the U.S. space program. He advocates putting aside 10 percent of NASA's budget as prizes for private companies that meet goals such as building a moon colony or putting people on Mars, Good Morning American reported. That should amount to about $2 billion in private incentives a year.
Such increased privatization would be more effective than keeping space science mostly within NASA, Gingrich has argued in debates. "If you take all the money we've spent at NASA since we landed on the moon and you had applied that money for incentives to the private sector, we would today probably have a permanent station on the moon, three or four permanent stations in space, a new generation of lift vehicles," Gingrich said on June 13, 2011, in Manchester, N.H. "NASA ought to be getting out of the way and encouraging the private sector," he continued. He characterized the space agency as too bureaucratic and failing.
Of course, NASA already funds several prizes to encourage outsiders to come up with solutions the agency can use. Its "Centennial Challenges" program, which began under President George W. Bush in 2005, has rewarded U.S. citizen-inventors for creating space gloves, a lunar soil-digging robot, electrically powered planes and more. NASA's deputy chief technologist, Joseph Parrish, called the competitions "fantastically successful" and said they have "paid off many times over."
The difference between the existing Centennial Challenges and what Gingrich proposes is scale. The Challenges program originally planned to devote one-tenth of 1 percent of NASA's budget to competition prizes. It's actually given out far less: $6 million in total since 2005, when the original plan was about $4 million every year. So Gingrich's plan would indeed be a makeover of the way NASA does business.
In a report published Feb. 1, a committee of dozens of academic and commercial space scientists produced unanimous advice to NASA on how to focus their technology research in the next five years. They pushed for 10 percent of NASA's technology budget to go to early-stage projects, mentioning one prize contest for citizen-inventors by name. They also encouraged NASA to cooperate more with outside companies, universities and other government agencies. But they didn't come close to mentioning the level of privatization Gingrich hopes for.