Feb 02 2010

Sen. Shelby Launches Rocket at Plan to Cut NASA Program

By Andy Pasztor

Why would a fiscally conservative senator, who usually criticizes liberal Democrats for unduly restricting private enterprise, go on the warpath against outsourcing big chunks of the U.S. space program to a hungry new breed of entrepreneurs?

For Republican Richard Shelby, the answer lies in his home state: the Obama administration’s proposal to kill NASA’s current top-priority manned space exploration program and partly replace it with an array of commercially developed and operated spacecraft would mean significant job losses in Alabama.

President Barack Obama’s budget potentially could eliminate thousands of jobs among contractors working on the Constellation program, as well as reducing the number of employees at local NASA facilities.

Shelby, the top Republican on the appropriations committee that oversees NASA, signaled how serious he was about gutting the White House’s proposal in a statement that started by emphasizing his success in shielding Constellation’s budget from previously proposed cuts.

“The President’s proposed NASA budget begins the death march for the future of U.S. human space flight,” he declared. Canceling the Constellation program “does represent change,” Shelby said, “but it is certainly not the change I believe in.” Congress “cannot and will not sit back and watch the reckless abandonment of” NASA’s current plans intended to return astronauts to the moon, added the four-term senator who is up for re-election this year.

Turning to defend the Ares I rocket that is central to the Constellation program, Shelby didn’t mention its cost overruns and schedule delays. Instead, he said that discarding Ares I “as the foundation of space exploration without demonstrated capability or proven superiority of an alternative vehicle, is irresponsible and not cost-effective.”

Long before the Obama budget was released, Shelby was busy firing other verbal rockets concerning NASA. He complained vehemently about what he considered an egregious bias among some members of an Obama-appointed study group that last summer essentially recommended scrapping the Ares I rocket. When that didn’t get much reaction on the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue, Shelby called for a criminal investigation of whether some of the panel’s members violated conflict-of-interest rules or laws by participating in the deliberations.