Space travel, moon base emerge as wedge in Florida primary race

As Mitt Romney tries to bring Newt Gingrich back to earth, the former House speaker is standing by his high-flying plans to ensure America is at the cutting edge of space exploration.

And the issue, likely more important in the Florida election than any other primary-season contest, has exposed a deep divide between the two front-running Republican presidential candidates.

While Gingrich is floating space-travel plans at a staggering rate -- even for a candidate who's been teased for his frequently "grandiose" proposals -- Romney is proudly tamping down the dream.

After ridiculing Gingrich on Thursday for pushing expensive and allegedly outlandish proposals, the former Massachusetts governor on Friday suggested Gingrich was pandering. And, Romney conceded, he does not really have a space plan. Not yet, anyway. Rather, Romney committed to carefully creating one once he's president.

"In the politics of the past, to get your vote on the Space Coast, I'd come here and promise hundreds of billions of dollars -- yeah, you want to hear that, yeah. Or I'd lay out what my mission is, here's what we're going to accomplish. I'm not going to do that," Romney said.

The candidate said he is not going to tell Florida "what the mission will be," but "how I'm going to get there." He said he'd bring in experts from across the military, NASA, and leading institutions and businesses, and then create a plan.

It is a risky move on the Space Coast. Romney is trying to cast himself as the straight-talking, pragmatic and fiscally responsible candidate -- the one who doesn't just tell voters what they want to hear. Romney has enjoyed a bump in the polls over the past few days, and is looking to hold that lead ahead of Tuesday's election.

But Gingrich, based on the reaction of his audiences, seems to be feeding a spark in Florida. With the space industry facing massive layoffs following the end of the space shuttle program, Gingrich is urging Americans to dream big once again and likening his critics to those who would doubt John F. Kennedy or the Wright brothers.

"I am sick of being told we have to be timid," Gingrich told an enthusiastic crowd in Florida on Wednesday.

In that speech, Gingrich unleashed a barrage of space thoughts. He called for a permanent moon base by the end of his second term. He revived an old idea of his to let Americans colonize the moon and petition for statehood once 13,000 of them are in place. He said he wants to approve a "Northwest Ordinance for space," which like the original would presumably facilitate the statehood process.

He called for NASA to devote 10 percent of its budget to prize money so the private sector would be incentivized to take the lead on spaceflight -- making the mission such a frenzy that the country eventually holds several launches every day.

Gingrich, defending those plans, told Fox News on Friday that "we lack a romantic vision of being an American."

He warned that the Chinese would dominate space if America does not step up. And he defended the idea of turning to the private sector. "I'd like to find enough millionaires and billionaires who say, you know, I'd love to be part of space and I'll kick in my share," he said.

Gingrich threw another idea onto the pile. Because the moon contains a lot of water, he said, America could use the moon as a water "refueling place" on the way to Mars and other reaches of the solar system.

Romney, at Thursday's debate, skewered Gingrich's plans.

"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 U.S.," he said.

Romney later added: "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.' 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, while portraying Gingrich's ideas as folly, is still casting himself as pro-space exploration.

His campaign on Friday released a letter from former astronauts and other space industry experts, including former NASA Administrator Michael Griffin, endorsing his approach.

The authors criticized President Obama's approach, saying the president has left the space program in "disarray," and said they believe Romney's would "produce results instead of empty promises."

"Mitt will do more than provide our space program with an inspiring vision and mission of exploration. He will also set aggressive yet achievable goals, adhere to realistic budgets and execute on a carefully drawn plan," they wrote.

But Bill McCollum, the former Florida attorney general who is also Gingrich's Florida campaign chairman, told Fox News that Gingrich's plan for private incentives is critical.

"We can't sit back and let the Chinese get ahead of us on space," he said Saturday. "You had three other candidates who all they're talking about is 'hey, we gotta be more conservative in the sense that we can't spend the money.'"

He said the country needs to balance the budget, but also needs to "set priorities."