WASHINGTON — A grainy black and white video on YouTube shows then President-John F. Kennedy addressing a joint session of Congress on May 25, 1961.
Kennedy pauses after each phrase and inflects his voice upwards as he says, “I believe that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal before this decade is out of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the earth.”
Fifty years later, standing in front of a giant American flag, Newt Gingrich pauses and inflects his voice — much the same way Kennedy did — as he makes a bold proclamation in a Florida campaign speech on Jan. 25 of this year.
“By the end of my second term…” Gingrich says as the audience gasps, and then applauds. “We will have a permanent base on the moon and it will be American.” He pounds his finger on the lectern with every word.
Kennedy’s speech is considered iconic and the launching point towards America’s eventual victory in the space race. Gingrich’s speech was lambasted in the media and satirized in late night television.
Since 1960 space has been a part of presidential politics in some shape or form. But increasingly, many experts say it can be politically damaging to bring the subject up if used incorrectly.
The world is a lot different place 50 years later said John Logsdon, author of “John F. Kennedy and the Race to the Moon.”
“There’s no imminent threat to U.S. leadership by another country’s space achievements,” Logsdon said. “The context for what Mr. Gingrich said is totally different.”
The Space Gaffe
Saturday Night Live opened on Feb. 4 with cheesy sci-fi music behind the announcement, “Newt Gingrich: Moon President.”
“The moon itself is not a silly thing,” said Scott Pace, the director of the Space Policy Institute at George Washington University. “What people rightly made fun of was [Gingrich’s] discussion of how it might be done, which played into the imagery of Gingrich having lots of interesting ideas but very few of them being practical.”
With the state of the U.S. deficit, Gingrich was criticized for the potential cost of the moon colony as well. The Apollo lunar missions cost more than $100 billion – and Gingrich’s plan is expected to be more expensive.
Gingrich is not the only candidate to be criticized in the media for trying to include space in the presidential campaign. In 2004, photos emerged of John Kerry in a one-piece “bunny” suit while touring a space shuttle at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida.
“In the case of Kerry, I can’t be critical of him going and visiting the shuttle facility and taking an interest,” Pace said.
Pace called the Kerry photo a “failure of imagery” within the campaign but said trying to bring up space was not a mistake. “Space symbolized or underscored an existing image rather than something that stood on its own,” he said.
Keith Cowing, founder of the unaffiliated news website NASA Watch, said it was not surprising Gingrich brought up space in his stump speech because he has been a fan of space almost his entire political career.
“When he knows something about a topic he will just start talking like a professor,” Cowing said. “What surprised people is he went beyond what would have been called a stump speech in a space state.”
Cowing, who uses his website to analyzeNASA objectives, said people who follow space “loved” Gingrich’s idea.
On the campaign trail, where public perception is everything, space can become a complicated issue.
Roger Launius, a curator at the Smithsonian’s Air and Space Museum, said public perception does not drive funding or policy for space exploration.
During the 1960’s, Launius found that 45 percent to 60 percent of Americans believed the government spent too much money on the planned lunar landing. After researching and compiling polls from the past 50 years, Launius concluded that it was only after the U.S. landed on the moon in 1969 that the public looked on the space program favorably.
Before the U.S. landed on the moon, the space program was not necessarily seen as “this bold visionary thing,” Launius said.
According to a study by the University of Florida, young educated male Republicans are the most likely to support a space program today. The research compiled data from the General Social Survey from 1973 to 2010.
Because these supporters only represent a piece of the electorate, Launius said many candidates avoid talking about space beyond the “generalities.”
“How many people are going to vote for one candidate based on what they have to say about space flight?” Launius said.
Keith Cowing agreed and called space a “weird” issue. “Why bring it up? Why not talk about an issue that can score more votes?”
The “Litmus Test”
Scott Pace has a retort to Cowing’s question. As an unpaid space policy advisor to Mitt Romney’s campaign, Pace agrees that space is not a top tier political issue. But he said it can be used to promote a broader theme.
“I think this administration despite some positives things that have been said hasn’t really executed or carried out commitments it has talked about so I look at space as somewhat of a litmus test of the leadership characteristics and management characteristics of a president or a potential candidate for president,” Pace said. “Space is an opportunity for candidates to show how they would be problem solvers or how they would address issues.”
As a former advisor to current California Gov. Jerry Brown, Cowing believes space can be used effectively in a campaign but most politicians haven’t figured out how. He said candidates need to use iconic images. “I would use space f I were trying to evoke the greatness of America and it’s ability to do impossible or improbable things.”