Gingrich reaches for the stars (well, the Moon at least)

If Newt Gingrich makes it to the White House, America will launch an ambitious programme to colonise the Moon, according to the latest exotic pledge to emerge on the Republican campaign trail.

The former House Speaker, who is running Mitt Romney a close second in the race for his party's presidential nomination, made the announcement during a rally on the "space coast" of Florida, where Nasa is a major employer.

Mr Gingrich told a crowd that his permanent US Moon base would be established by 2020. And once its population has reached the legal minimum of 13,000, he promised to support any effort by residents to turn the Moon into the 51st state of the USA. "By the end of my second term, we will have the first permanent base on the Moon and it will be American," he said.

Admitting that announcing the "bold" vision was the "weirdest thing I have ever done", Mr Gingrich told supporters that if elected president, he would instruct Nasa to send a rocket to Mars within the same time frame.

The proposal met with mirth from Mr Gingrich's opponents, who oppose "Big Government" spending at a time when deficit reduction is a Republican mantra. However, it has some chance of support in Florida, where 10,000 jobs were lost after the recent closure of the satellite programme.

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