Former Speaker of the House and Fox News contributor Newt Gingrich has dusted off an old idea of his and has retrofitted it for the Trump era. He has proposed a prize competition that would award $2 billion to the first private group to return humans to the moon and establish a base there.
He believes that the competition will get American back to the moon at a greatly reduced cost, especially since NASA is being forced to use the super expensive Space Launch System (SLS) by the Congress. Gingrich explains on his website:
“First, there are several billionaires who are prepared to spend their own money (it is estimated Jeff Bezos spends $1 billion or more a year personally on Blue Origin). If there was government encouragement and a government prize, then Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos, Sir Richard Branson, Robert Bigelow, and a host of others might well jump into the competition. The late Paul Allen was busy developing space capabilities and his estate might be willing to continue in his memory.”
“Second, there are a number of private companies with increasingly good records of launches with consistent success.”
“Third, from reusable rockets to very large self-evolving space systems to 3D printed rockets and space machinery, there are an astonishing range of smart innovators and entrepreneurs developing better ways to achieve goals in space.
“If someone gets to the Moon and starts developing it before NASA, then the savings on SLS launches alone would pay many times the cost of the prize. This proposal in effect creates an American space race of great potential to be cheaper and faster than traditional approaches.’
Gingrich hastens to say that this competition is meant to run in parallel with NASA’s Project Artemis rather than to replace it. When the former speaker has previously proposed space prize competitions, as he did when he ran for president in 2012, he believed that NASA has become so bureaucratic that it was incapable of executing large projects at a reasonable cost in a reasonable period.
However, in 2019. Gingrich recognizes that the young, reformist NASA Administrator, Jim Bridenstine, has been moving swiftly to reform the space agency, bring in both commercial and international partners, and has exerted leadership to get people back to the moon as soon as possible.
The Gingrich Moon Prize is being sold as an insurance policy in case something happens to Artemis, such as a change of administrations in 2020. A Democratic president could cancel Artemis just as Barack Obama did the last attempt to return to the moon, and for similar capricious reasons.
Two problems may exist with the Gingrich Moon Prize idea.
First, real-world examples of space prizes have had spotty results. A group led by aerospace entrepreneur Burt Rutan won the Ansari X-Prize by flying a suborbital air-launched rocket plane twice within two weeks in October 2004.
However, hopes that the feat would lead to a space tourism industry have been delayed for 15 years. A spacecraft based on the Rutan developed technology only scheduled to start taking paying customers later this year or early the next.
The Google Lunar X-Prize would have awarded money to the first group to land a robotic probe on the moon and perform certain tasks. Google ended the competition without any winner last year.
An Israeli team crash-landed a probe called Beresheet on the moon early in 2019. Astrobotic, which dropped out of the Google Lunar X-Prize before it was canceled, is due to launch for the moon in 2021 as part of a NASA financed program related to Artemis.
The second problem, according to NASA Watch, involves politics.
“It’s hard to argue with most of what Newt and his gang say. One major problem: none of this will happen – at least not as they imagine – under the current administration since it would upset a serious portion of congressional power centers that are heavily invested in the SLS/Orion/Gateway architecture. We have already seen how the mere suggestion of commercial alternatives for EM-1 was stomped out by Sen. Shelby within hours. Just last week we saw the Human Lunar Lander program handed to the same center in Alabama that has given us the chronically delayed and grossly over-cost SLS program.”
Sen. Shelby chairs the Senate Appropriations Committee and controls NASA spending.
NASA Watch went on to suggest that a private return to the moon may happen anyway, regardless of whether a prize competition exists or not, which would be a remarkable turn of events.