In a Republican presidential debate Thursday night, Mitt Romney mocked his GOP rival Newt Gingrich for his proposal to create a lunar colony and accused the former House speaker of pandering to Florida's Space Coast.
"I spent 25 years in business. If I had a business executive come to me and say they wanted to spend a few hundred billion dollars to put a colony on the moon, I'd say, 'You're fired,'" Romney said in the debate, hosted by CNN, the Republican Party of Florida and the Hispanic Leadership Network in Jacksonville, Florida. "The idea that corporate America wants to go off to the moon and build a colony there, it may be a big idea, but it's not a good idea."
Gingrich on Wednesdayby the end of his second term as president. He said that once 13,000 Americans were living on the moon, the colony could apply for statehood. The promise could appeal to Florida's space industry, which has struggled since NASA ended the U.S. shuttle program in 2011.
Romney said that Gingrich goes "from state to state and promise[s] exactly what that state wants to hear."
In Florida, he said, Gingrich promises to spend "untold amounts of money" on a moon colony, while he promises a new Veterans Health Administration hospital in New Hampshire and a new interstate highway in South Carolina.
"This idea of going state to state and promising what people want to hear, promising billions, hundreds of billions of dollars to make people happy, that's what got us into the trouble we're in now," Romney said. "We've got to say no to this kind of spending."
Developing a lunar colony would cost "hundreds of billions, if not trillions, Romney said, adding, "I'd rather be rebuilding housing here in the U.S."
In response to the criticism that his plan would be too expensive, Gingrich pointed out that he helped pass the 1997 Balanced Budget Act to balance the federal budget while doubling the size of the National Institutes of Health -- "because we set priorities."
"It is possible to do the right things in the right order to make this a bigger, richer, more exciting country," he said.
Gingrich also said the program would be a source of inspiration and national pride.
"It is really important to go back and look at what John F. Kennedy said in May of 1961 when he said, 'We will go to the moon in this decade,'" he said. "No American had orbited the Earth. The technology didn't exist. And a generation of young people went into science and engineering and technology, and they were tremendously excited."
Former Sen. Rick Santorum concurred with the sentiment that the space program inspires young people to study math and science. However, he added, "Let's just be honest, we run a $1.2 trillion deficit right now... And to go out there and promise new programs and big ideas, that's a great thing to maybe get votes, but it's not a responsible thing when you have to go out and say that we have to start cutting programs, not talking about how to -- how to -- how to grow them."
Both Gingrich and Romney said that the private sector should be more involved in space exploration. Romney talked about building a coalition between government entities and the private sector to build a manned space program.
Rep. Ron Paul, by contrast, said he doesn't like the idea of government-business partnerships.
"I just think that we don't need a bigger, a newer program," he said. "I mean, health care or something else deserves a lot more priority than going to the moon. So, I would be very reluctant, but space technology should be followed up to some degree for national defense purposes."
More from the debate: