“By the end of my second term, we will have the first permanent base on the moon, and it will be American,” proclaimed Newt Gingrich during a Jan. 25 speech in the city of Cocoa, Florida, which rests on the nation’s Space Coast. He said he would make this happen through public-private partnerships and incentive prizes to drive innovation. The chattering classes and the Beltway politicos immediately mocked Gingrich’s plan. Fellow candidate Mitt Romney suggested that voters should dispatch Gingrich and “Send him to the Moon!”
I don’t endorse Gingrich’s often-extreme views. But on this issue, I believe he is right. Gingrich is doing something rare in politics: He’s thinking outside of the box, and this type of thinking is what is needed to get the U.S. back on track.
Vivek Wadhwa is Vice President of Innovation and Research at Singularity University and Arthur & Toni Rembe Rock Center for Corporate Governance at Stanford University. His other academic appointments include Harvard, Duke and Emory Universities as well as the University of California Berkeley.
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First, let’s clarify what Gingrich was talking about. Gingrich wasn’t proposing another massive government-funded boondoggle. Rather, he said that such a colony could be achieved. In fact, some of this is already happening. The Google Lunar X-Prize is a competition already underway that offers a $30 million reward to the first team able to send a robot to the moon. Twenty-six teams from around the world are competing. Since none of these teams are lushly funded (and the award wouldn’t even come close to covering a single conventional space launch by the traditional private satellite launch providers), the Lunar X-Prize competition is causing entrepreneurs to develop creative new ways to attain spaceflight at a fraction of the normal cost.
One of the leading teams is a company called Moon Express. Founded in 2010 by International Space University founder Robert Richards, philanthropist, entrepreneur and Singularity University trustee (where I also serve as vice president of academics and innovation) Naveen Jain, and NASA scientist Barney Pell, Moon Express has already demonstrated a lunar lander system that will cost a fraction of past systems (think millions of dollars instead of hundreds of millions). This technology has already passed the required NASA milestones and is viewed as a viable contender for future moon missions. Moon Express hopes to tap into common platforms being developed by NASA for space payloads. But they plan to do so in a way that slices costs and doesn’t require massive subsidies. And the end goal of Moon Express is similar to what Gingrich expressed: It’s economic. They plan to mine the moon for rare Earth minerals or other valuable materials. So rather than earning a leg up over the Soviets, Moon Express is aiming to earn a big return for investors.
The idea of innovation prizes is hardly new. In fact, a number of celebrated historical feats were made possible, in part, by the desire to win these prizes. When Charles Lindbergh flew non-stop from New York to Paris in May 1927, he collected the $25,000 Orteig Prize, a long-standing award aimed at spurring innovation in aviation. Lindbergh didn’t fly just to win the prize, but the prize certainly created a world stage that encouraged innovative behavior and thinking. What’s more, research in the area of innovation prizes suggests that these contests actually stimulate research in excess of what would otherwise have occurred.