The U.S. would have a permanent, manned colony on the moon by 2020 if Newt Gingrich is elected president, the former House speaker told a crowd of Florida voters Wednesday. It could even be the 51st state, he added (see video below).


"By the end of my second term, we will have the first permanent base on the moon, and it will be American," Gingrich said during a speech on Florida's Space Coast, adding that the colony could petition for statehood once it reaches a population of 13,000.


The Republican presidential candidate described a sci-fi vision of near-Earth space in 2020, describing how spaceports would operate like today's airports, enabling five or more launches daily for both commercial and industrial travel. "We will have commercial near-Earth activities ... precisely on the model of the airlines in the 1930s," Gingrich told a cheering crowd in Cocoa, Fla., an area still reeling from last year's retirement of the NASA space shuttle fleet.


"I am sick of being told we have to be timid," he explained, "and I'm sick of being told we have to be limited to technologies that are 50 years old."


It's unclear who's been telling Gingrich he has to be timid, but he hasn't been listening for decades. Gingrich has touted the idea of a moon base since at least 1984, when his book "Window of Opportunity: A Blueprint for the Future" outlined his plans for an "opportunity society." His romantic visions of outer space long ago earned him the nickname "Newt Skywalker," and in this campaign he has already reiterated his views about space mirrors and high-altitude nuclear weapons.


And Florida's central east coast, a NASA hub for 50 years, is an ideal place to pitch such ideas. Gingrich is still buoyed by his win in South Carolina, but his lead in Florida has slipped lately; new polls show him in a virtual tie with Mitt Romney. He found a receptive audience in Cocoa, though, where anxiety about NASA's new direction remains high. Now that the shuttle era is over, NASA is focused on big-picture targets like Mars, ceding more routine missions to private firms like SpaceX. NASA has no plans for a manned launch to the International Space Station until at least 2016.


"The reason you have to have a bold and large vision is you don't arouse the American nation with trivial, bureaucratic, rational objectives," Gingrich explained. But he's also aware fiscal conservatives tend to like rational objectives and dislike government spending, so he made clear that NASA wouldn't foot the entire bill, instead offering prizes — up to $10 billion — to help jump-start an autonomous space industry.


"You put up a bunch of interesting prizes, you're going to have so many people showing up wanting to fly it's going to be unbelievable," Gingrich said. "We had enormous breakthroughs in the '20s and '30s costing the government very little money because smart people were working on it." He even suggested trimming NASA's budget, arguing the agency should become "leaner" and less bureaucratic.


A Romney press release recently mocked Gingrich for his "grandiose thoughts," a jab Gingrich embraced Wednesday. "I accept the charge that I am American, and Americans are instinctively grandiose because we believe in a bigger future," he said, comparing his moon-base idea to President Lincoln's call for a transcontinental railroad and President Kennedy's campaign for a manned lunar mission.


But even if a permanent lunar colony is feasible, some experts doubt Gingrich — or any president — could make it happen in eight years. Dale Ketcham, director of Florida's Spaceport Research and Technology Institute, tells WESH-TV in Orlando that funding would be a major hurdle. "It's definitely possible. I mean, we got to the moon with no program at all in nine years," Ketcham says. "The challenge is, can we convince the Congress that this is where scarce resources need to be?"


Despite the challenges, though, Gingrich is unwavering. And he even has some competition, albeit tongue-in-cheek: The Japanese arm of Domino's Pizza recently unveiled its own plans for a manned lunar base. Gingrich has yet to reveal whether his version would include pizza kitchens or double-decker pool tables.


Check out the video of Gingrich's speech below:



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Russell McLendon ( @russmclendon ) writes about humans and other wildlife.

Gingrich promises U.S. moon base by 2020
Visiting Florida's Space Coast ahead of next week's primary, the GOP presidential candidate vows to build a permanent U.S. colony on the moon.