Apr 27 2006

State's NASA funding assured

Montgomery Advertiser

By Greg Wright

Alabama's Marshall Space Flight Center will continue to get "robust" federal funding for space research, NASA's top official told lawmakers Wednesday.

This includes funds to help develop a Crew Launch Vehicle to get astronauts into space after NASA retires its aging shuttle fleet in 2010, NASA Administrator Michael Griffin said. And Griffin assured Alabama Sen. Richard Shelby that the president wants federal funding for a robot lander that would be partly developed at Marshall in Huntsville, Griffin said.

Shelby, chairman of a Senate Appropriations subcommittee that oversees NASA's budget, noted Bush did not put Robotic Lunar Exploration Program funds in his fiscal 2007 budget proposal. But Griffin assured Shelby during a hearing that Bush supports it.

The robot would do precision landings on the moon to prepare for a manned mission and hunt for water and other resources to help humans survive there.

"We will do that mission," Griffin said. "It probably will not start in fiscal 2007."

Bush proposed boosting NASA's budget 3 percent to $16.8 billion during fiscal 2007, which starts Oct. 1

But Shelby, R-Tuscaloosa, and Sen. Barbara Mikulski of Maryland, top Democrat on the subcommittee, worry NASA is shortchanging some science, research and education programs as it fulfills Bush's plan to send men back to the moon by 2020 and then on to Mars. Earthbound activities such as research foster innovations that have an economic benefit, Mikulski said.

"One of the greatest challenges that I believe NASA faces is building and retaining a technical work force," Shelby said. "Such high visibility can be a powerful tool for inspiring future scientists, engineers and explorers."

But NASA has to do a lot within this budget, Griffin said. It plans to put the Discovery shuttle back into space by July, for the second shuttle launch since Columbia shuttle broke apart on re-entry in 2003. And NASA must service the International Space Station and develop a new Crew Exploration Vehicle and Crew Launch Vehicle to replace the shuttle, Griffin said.

Griffin urged lawmakers not to shift money from these programs to research.

"NASA cannot do everything under the $16.8 billion budget," he said.

Shelby said he wished NASA's budget could be increased by $4 billion to $5 billion to meet program needs. "I believe that we can and should find a balance," he said.