Feb 02 2010

Alabama lawmakers vow to save Constellation moon mission

By Sean Reilly

Members of the Alabama congressional delegation swiftly rallied around the Constellation moon mission Monday, saying that the Obama's administration's proposed cancellation is far from the last word on its fate.

"Congress cannot and will not sit back and watch the reckless abandonment of sound principles, a proven track record ... and the destruction of our human space flight program," Sen. Richard Shelby, R-Tuscaloosa, said in a statement.

Shelby is the top Republican on the Senate panel that helps write NASA's budget. In this fiscal year's budget, he restored $600 million in proposed cuts to the Constellation program and helped to limit NASA's ability to end or change the program, an accompanying news release said.

To varying degrees, Shelby's sentiments were echoed by Reps. Parker Griffith, R-Huntsville, Robert Aderholt, R-Haleyville, and Artur Davis, D-Birmingham, as well as Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Mobile. Joining in the drumbeat of denunciation were lawmakers from Florida and Texas, states that also have big stakes in the venture.

One thing is virtually certain: The administration's plan will get an exhaustive look on Capitol Hill as lawmakers debate a dramatic change in NASA's direction. The outcome likely won't be settled until this fall, when work on the agency's fiscal 2011 budget is wrapped up.
 
Already, Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., plans to use a Feb. 24 hearing to explore the feasibility of continuing with Ares I testing in the hope of developing a "light" version of the Ares V cargo launch vehicle "so America isn't relying only (on) commercial vendors," a spokesman said via e-mail.

Whether opponents can carry the day in Congress as a whole is an open question. Sen. Barbara Mikulski, a Maryland Democrat who chairs the NASA budget panel, did not respond to a request for comment Monday on the White House plan.

One observer questioned, however, whether Constellation backers can leverage enough support to undo all of the proposed $3.5 billion cut.

"I think it'd be hard to have that big of a whack restored," said Steve Ellis, vice president of Washington, D.C.-based Taxpayers for Common Sense, a nonpartisan watchdog group that backs the administration's stance.

"Manned space exploration is prohibitively expensive," Ellis said in an e-mail.

"Considering the budgetary hole we are in, it makes sense to pursue private partnerships and continue unmanned space exploration rather than dump more cash into a bloated, over-budget" program.

NASA officials made similar arguments in a conference call with reporters, adding that halting the Constellation program won't necessarily mean a permanent end to manned space exploration by the United States.

Alabama lawmakers weren't convinced.

In his statement, Shelby said the administration's budget "begins the death march for the future of U.S. human space flight."

Starting with the late John F. Kennedy, "we've been blessed with having presidents ... who have supported this vision," Sessions said in an interview. "It's pretty clear now that we don't have that."
        
Sessions also questioned the wisdom of breaking up "a fabulous team of scientists," and said he found it inconceivable NASA could save money by starting over with a private company.

Aderholt sounded a similar theme in a news release. "Under the president's plan," he said, "there is no telling how many years taxpayers could be on the hook while these programs come up to speed."

Davis, who is running for governor, said in a release that he would work with other lawmakers to push the administration to reverse course and that the possible loss of 2,200 jobs "is an unacceptable blow to North Alabama's economy."

For Griffith, the White House announcement comes barely a month after he jumped parties and was subsequently stripped of his committee assignments -- including a seat on the House science and technology panel -- by majority Democrats. The freshman lawmaker has yet to get any new assignments as a Republican.

 "Not necessarily," Griffith replied Monday when asked whether he would be better positioned to affect the debate if he were still on the science committee. "This is an appropriations question; this is a money question.
        
"My greatest leverage is going to be working with my delegation," Griffith said, "working with our NASA caucus, working with our people who are very keenly interested in space ... who see space exploration as the heart and soul of America," whether in Texas, Florida, California or elsewhere.