NASA / Sandra Joseph and Kevin O'Connell
Runway lights help lead space shuttle Endeavour, seen here from behind, home to NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida. Endeavour landed for the final time on the Shuttle Landing Facility's Runway 15, on June 1, marking the 24th night landing of NASA's Space Shuttle Program.
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updated 6/14/2011 3:33:27 PM ET 2011-06-14T19:33:27

Candidates for the 2012 Republican presidential nomination tackled the future of NASA, without its space shuttle program, among other issues during the GOP's first debate, in New Hampshire Monday night.

The question on NASA's future came from reporter Jean Mackin of news station WMUY in Hancock, N.H.: "What role should the government play in future space exploration?"

Mackin directed the question at former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, noting that NASA is ending its 30-year space shuttle program next month and will pay Russia's space program $63 million per seat to fly American astronauts on Soyuz spacecraft for trips to the International Space Station until commercial U.S. spacecraft become available. The last shuttle to fly will be Atlantis, which is set to launch July 8.

Gingrich, former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, three of the seven candidates appearing in the nationally televised debate, weighed in on NASA's future. Here were their responses. (CNN anchor John King served as the debate's moderator.)

Newt Gingrich, former speaker of the House of Representatives
Well, sadly — and I say this sadly, because I'm a big fan of going into space and I actually worked to get the shuttle program to survive at one point — NASA has become an absolute case study in why bureaucracy can't innovate.

If you take all the money we've spent at NASA since we landed on the moon and you had applied that money for incentives to the private sector, we would today probably have a permanent station on the moon, three or four permanent stations in space, a new generation of lift vehicles. And instead what we've had is bureaucracy after bureaucracy after bureaucracy, and failure after failure.

I think it's a tragedy, because younger Americans ought to have the excitement of thinking that they, too, could be part of reaching out to a new frontier.

You know, you'd asked earlier, John, about this idea of limits because we're a developed country. We're not a developed country. The scientific future is going to open up, and we're at the beginning of a whole new cycle of extraordinary opportunities. And, unfortunately, NASA is standing in the way of it, when NASA ought to be getting out of the way and encouraging the private sector.

(Later, in response to a comment by King:)

John, you mischaracterized me, I didn't say " end the space program." We built the transcontinental railroads without a national department of railroads. I said you could get into space faster, better, more effectively, more creatively if you decentralized it, got it out of Washington, and cut out the bureaucracy. It's not about getting rid of the space program; it's about getting to a real space program that works.

Tim Pawlenty, former Minnesota governor
I think the space program has played a vital role for the United States of America.

(In response to King's question: But can the United States afford it?)

In the context of our budget challenges, it can be refocused and reprioritized, but I don't think we should be eliminating the space program. We can partner with private providers to get more economies of scale and scale it back, but I don't think we should eliminate the space program.

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Mitt Romney, former Massachusetts governor
I think fundamentally there are some people — and most of them are Democrats, but not all — who really believe that the government knows how to do things better than the private sector. ... And they happen to be wrong.

NASA's future
NASA's final space shuttle flight is scheduled for a 12-day mission to deliver supplies and equipment to the International Space Station. The mission is designated STS-135, representing NASA's 135th space shuttle flight since the fleet began launching into orbit in April 1981.

NASA is retiring its shuttle fleet to make way for a new space exploration program aimed at sending humans to an asteroid by 2020 and to Mars in the 2030s.

The space agency is developing a new Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle, based on the Orion space capsule designed under its previous moon-oriented Constellation exploration program, to serve as the core vehicle of those deep-space missions.

You can follow Space.com Managing Editor Tariq Malik on Twitter @tariqjmalik. Follow Spacecom for the latest in space science and exploration news on Twitter @Spacedotcom and on Facebook.

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Video: The future of space exploration

  1. Closed captioning of: The future of space exploration

    >>> this is the final flight of nasa is not scheduled to launch until early next month, but the agency's role in the future of space exploration is stirring heated discussion among the hopefuls. last night newt gingrich said that nasa is standing in the way of true space innovation, and he said that space exploration should be handled by the private sector and not the government.

    >> if you take all of the money we have spent by nasa since landing on the moon and apply that to the incentives to the final sector, we would probably have a permanent station on the moon and three or four permanent in space, and a new generation of lift vehicles and instead, what we have had is bureaucracy after bureaucracy and failure after failure.

    >> i'm joined now by astronaut rex will hheim who is the mission specialist when it does launch in july. rex, thank you for your time. let me get your reaction to what newt gingrich had to say.

    >> well, you know what, i think that what we really need is a partnership between the private industry and the government. that is kind of what he is trying to say, because what you need to do is to turn things over to the private sector when they are able to do that. that is what we are trying to do is to turn over access of the lower orbit to the commercial sector and they are not there yet, and we will help them get there, and beyond that we want to go further than the lower orbit and nobody can do that right now, but we are trying to build that right now. when you combine the entrepreneurial spirit -- go ahead.

    >> but going back to gingrich's comments i think that you perhaps put it more elegantly and peacefully than he did, because he drew a line in the sand there between what he calls bureaucracy and the innovations that could have been made up to this point because of the private sector , and do you believe that we would have gone further if p the transition that we are making right now had taken place years ago?

    >> i don't think so. i think that we are getting to the point where we can turn things over more to the private sector , and it just takes some time, and like i say, you combine the entrepreneurial spirit and know-how with nasa . we have been doing this for 50 years and it takes a long time to know how to live and work in space and survive in space and especially deep space . so to take what nasa has done and combine it with the en prepreneural spirit, you can have a team to do that, and there a little bit of uncertainty, but i think that we can get there.

    >> and let me get your feelings, rex, when you launch in july and you will haul back 500,000 pounds of trash from the international space station and one of the things that you are doing there, and how do you feel that -- go for the heart here and not the company line, but how do you feel as a part of the team?

    >> it's awesome to be part of the team. it really is. i wanted to be part of the mission in some aspect before i was assigned to it. i said i want to be working in the control center or helping at the launch or doing something or to be on the vehicle when it launches for the last time is an incredible thrill.

    >> you are certainly part of the last mission and we will be watching. we are thankful for the work that you and the entire team have done. rex, it is a pleasure.

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