COCOA, Fla. — Newt Gingrich told a cheering crowd along Florida's Space Coast late Wednesday that he would establish a permanent colony on the moon, and develop a spacecraft that can get to Mars, by the end of his second term as president.

Gingrich, who has long held a fascination with space exploration and has talked extensively about further missions to the moon, Mars and beyond, committed for the first time to pushing aggressively for such programs if he wins the White House. Just a few miles from Cape Canaveral, he played to a crowd eager for a renewal of the nation's space program. The speech also gave him a chance to tweak Mitt Romney, his leading rival for the GOP nomination, who has mocked Gingrich's "zany" ideas.

View Photo Gallery: The former House speaker says he will put a colony on the moon and a spacecraft on Mars during his presidency.

"I was attacked the other night for being grandiose," Gingrich said. "I would just want you to note: Lincoln standing at Council Bluffs was grandiose. The Wright Brothers standing at Kitty Hawk were grandiose. John F. Kennedy was grandiose. I accept the charge that I am grandiose and that Americans are instinctively grandiose."

The line drew raucous applause from a crowd of at least 500 in a hotel ballroom here, as did Gingrich's lengthy riff on his fascination with space travel. His interest goes back to his early youth, when he read Missiles and Rockets magazine and obsessed over the Soviet Sputnik program. He also proclaimed that the "weirdest thing" he ever did in Congress was to introduce a "Northwest Ordinance for space" that would allow a moon colony to become a state once 13,000 lived there.

(Asked afterward by a reporter when the moon-state would hold its presidential primary, Gingrich said, "I think the moon primary would probably come late in the season."

"Here's the difference between so-called romantics and practical people," Gingrich said during his address. "I want every single young American to say to themselves, I could become one of those 13,000, I can be part of building a bigger, better future, be part of a generation of courageous people who do something big and bold. We want Americans to think bolder about space and rebuild the country we love."

That last line drew a thunderous applause and drew the room to its feet.

Lest anyone think that Gingrich wants government to grow in order to launch these new programs, he proposed setting aside 10 percent of NASA's budget for prizes to be awarded for the innovations that lead to the moon and Mars. He also promised to scrutinize the NASA bureaucracy and billion-dollar programs that don't produce results.

"If they have as many bureaucrats now, when they're not launching, as they had when they were launching, you really have to ask: What it is they do? I think this is a very serious problem. We have a huge Washington bureaucracy that thinks. We actually need a lot more doing."

Gingrich also said that exploration of the moon and beyond would have far-reaching commercial applications. He talked of "commercial, near-earth activities" including science, tourism and manufacturing. He even went on an extended riff on improving the technology of synthetic materials used in airliners ("I want to pour synthetics — actually they wrap it. It's very strange").

"Look," Gingrich said. "Without getting into Heinlein’s novels, I think there are a lot of different things you'd want to learn: How to live in low gravity. How to create certain capabilities that lead beyond the moon. How to develop assets that the moon has. How to do manufacturing in low-gravity environments.

The list went on and on.

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