By Irene Klotz
COCOA, Florida (Reuters) - Republican presidential contender Newt Gingrich called on Wednesday for a base on the moon and an expanded federal purse for prize money to stimulate private-sector space projects.
"We want Americans to think boldly about the future," Gingrich said during a campaign rally in Florida, where he outlined a space policy initiative that would cut NASA's bureaucracy and expand on private-sector space programs championed by President Barack Obama.
"By the end of my second term, we will have the first permanent base on the moon and it will be American," Gingrich said.
"We will have commercial near-Earth activities that include science, tourism and manufacturing, because it is in our interest to acquire so much experience in space that we clearly have a capacity that the Chinese and the Russians will never come anywhere close to matching," he said.
Gingrich is locked in a close battle with former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney as Florida prepares to vote on Tuesday in the Republican presidential primary. Republicans are seeking a nominee to challenge Democrat Obama in the November election. The rally in Cocoa was just down the road from the Kennedy Space Center.
With the retirement of the space shuttles last year, the United States is dependent on Russia to fly its astronauts to the International Space Station, a service that costs NASA about $60 million per person. China, the only other country that has flown people in space, is not a member of the station partnership.
In addition to supporting the station, a $100 billion laboratory owned by the United States, Russia, Europe, Japan and Canada, NASA is working on a spaceship and heavy-lift rocket that could carry astronauts to asteroids and other destinations beyond the station's 240-mile-high (385-km) orbit.
The Obama administration also backs the development of privately owned space taxis to break Russia's monopoly on transportation to the station.
Congress allotted $406 million for the program for the year that began on October 1.
Gingrich said he wanted to spend 10 percent of NASA's $18 billion budget on prize money for competitions that spur innovation and technological breakthroughs in space.
"I'm prepared to invest the prestige of the presidency in communicating and building a nationwide movement in favor of space," Gingrich said at a meeting of aerospace executives and community leaders after the rally.
"If we do it right, it'll be wild and it will be just the most fun you've ever seen," he said.
During a debate in Florida on Monday, Romney said he believed space should be a priority.
"What we have right now is a president who does not have a vision or a mission for NASA. I happen to believe our space program is important not only for science, but also for commercial development and for military development," he said.
(Editing by Jane Sutton and Peter Cooney)