HUNTSVILLE, Ala. -- Republican Newt Gingrich, standing before a replica of a lunar landing craft at the U.S. Space and Rocket Center here, defended his call for a new generation of space exploration despite the cottage industry of comedic parodies it generated -- and the widely held view that the idea hastened his decline in the GOP presidential nominating contest.

“Of all the places we’ve held rallies, this may be the most amazing,” Gingrich proclaimed on Tuesday to a cheering crowd of a few hundred, a banner depicting a launching rocket hanging directly over his head. “Far from backing off, I invite “Saturday Night Live” to come to Huntsville to tape one of their skits. They can tape it at the Space Camp. Because I want to restate: America has a destiny in space. That’s who we are. We are not backing off John F. Kennedy’s challenges, and we are not going to let the Chinese dominate the future in space.”


Gingrich has faced criticism — and has been the target of jokes — for promising, in a speech given along the Space Coast of Florida in January, to establish a moon colony within eight years of becoming president.

Gingrich’s supporters here cheered his remarks, and one woman shouted, “Yeah!” again and again. Yet the timing of Gingrich’s speech -- and appearance at the space center, which is home NASA’s famed Space Camp program -- was unusual. While his rivals fanned out across the 10 states holding primaries or caucuses on Super Tuesday, Gingrich devoted the bulk of the day flying from Atlanta to Huntsville and back again.

Alabama doesn’t vote until next week, and Gingrich is planning to contest the state along with neighboring Mississippi, which votes the same day. But Georgia was the only Super Tuesday state (not to mention Gingrich’s home state, which he is favored heavily to win), where the former House speaker scheduled election day events.

Gingrich’s spokesman, R.C. Hammond, said the speech was meant to demonstrate that Gingrich is the only real visionary in the race -- the only choice for conservative voters who want real change, dramatic ideas and lots of creativity in Washington and the White House.

“Here’s my comment to all those naysayers and critics out there,” Hammond said. “The same folks who mocked Newt Gingrich are the same people who don’t want to cure cancer, who don’t want to cure Alzheimer’s, who don’t want to fix our public school system, the same people who look at things and say, ‘I can live with that, we don’t need to fix it.”

Gingrich made a similar point in his speech: “There are visionaries and there are people who manage the decay,” he said. “They are not in the same business.”

Speaking of the space center, but making a clear allusion to his on campaign, Gingrich added: “This is the launching pad for the next phase of excitement in invention.”

He also expressed optimism about his staying power in the race: “For the third time, we’re going to come bouncing back and I suspect in another two or three weeks we’ll have a clear choice.”