Florida is the state that put the first man on the moon, NBC's Brian Williams noted at the Republican presidential debate in Tampa. He asked the candidates, "At a time when you all want to shrink federal spending, should space exploration be a priority?"
Of course it should be, Mitt Romney said. The former Massachusetts governor accused President Obama of having no vision for NASA, "and as a result of that, there are people on the Space Coast that are suffering." He spoke of the need for "a collaborative effort" among business, government, and the military. (Romney showed less sympathy for the auto industry workers suffering in the Midwest a few years ago. For them, he wrote an op-ed titled "Let Detroit Go Bankrupt.")
Williams turned to Newt Gingrich and asked, "Would you put more tax dollars into the space race to commit to putting an American on Mars instead of relying on the private sector?"
Flying beyond the question's orbit, the former House speaker advocated offering prizes for going to Mars or back to the moon. He noted that Charles Lindbergh flew to Paris in 1927 for a $25,000 prize. But he added, "I would like to see vastly more of the money spent encouraging the private sector into very aggressive experimentation, and I'd like to see a leaner NASA."
Now, where, pray tell, would the prize and encouragement money come from other than the taxpayers? And why does Gingrich suddenly say he wants a slimmer NASA? Not long ago, he co-wrote a piece saying that the "Obama administration's  budget for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration deserves strong approval from Republicans."
To quote Yoda from Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back, "You must unlearn what you have learned."
Working on the questionable assumption that Gingrich believes his latest version, the audience hears the following: Gingrich merely wants to remove those pests — government bureaucrats — standing between corporations and the U.S. Treasury vault. That would ensure a perfect lunar path for lobbyists (or lobbyist clones like himself) to facilitate the transfer of public money.
We've seen the deal before in the GOP's Medicare drug benefit. Shovel taxpayer dollars into the private coffers with minimal government oversight and call it a "free-market solution."
Gingrich made money selling his former congressional colleagues on the drug benefit, which costs taxpayers far more than would have a simple plan for the government to directly buy the medicines. Gingrich approves. "It's run on a free-enterprise model," he insists.
The issues change, but the creatures and lobbying tactics to build them are the same. As Lama Su succinctly puts it in Star Wars: Attack of the Clones, "Pure genetic replication."
Gingrich is far more poetic than your average spaceling or Mitt Romney. He envisions us "leapfrogging into a world where you're incentivizing people who are visionary and people in the private sector to invest very large amounts of money and finding a very romantic and exciting future."
If people in the private sector have very large amounts of money to invest in this romantic and exciting future, why don't they invest it? Isn't that the free-market model? Depends what planet, I suppose.
One can imagine that NASA has room to streamline, but it is hardly the failure Gingrich makes it out to be. It built the International Space Station and repaired the Hubble telescope. It runs successful research missions. And it already works collaboratively with private industry, by the way.
The Republican candidates may go around calling for an expanded space program without expanded taxes, but we earthlings know different. On our planet, taxes pay for government. And frankly, I want my planet back.
Froma Harrop writes for Creators Syndicate.