Mar 17 2007

Marshall could lose lunar robotics office

Huntsville Times

By SHELBY G. SPIRES

Congress must OK NASA plan to shift that work to D.C.

A Marshall Space Flight Center office that now manages two planned lunar probes is slated to be closed and robotics research beyond two already approved moon probes delayed if a NASA headquarters plan is implemented.

The 32-member Lunar Precursor Robotics Program office would be shut down and the work transferred to NASA headquarters in Washington, D.C., if Congress signs off on the NASA plan, said Beth Dickey, a NASA spokeswoman in Washington.

"NASA has recommended closing that office and moving its responsibility to headquarters," Dickey said Friday. "The Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter and the Lunar Crater Observation and Sensing Satellite missions will continue, but the management would be moved."

No details were available about what work the 24 civil servants and eight contractors would perform if the office were closed, Dickey said, because the proposal is being sent to Congress.

"My understanding is that NASA planned to send that document to Congress this week," Dickey said. "Congress has 15 days to comment on it and send it back to NASA."

Dickey said the changes probably would not be put in place until late March.

U.S. Sen. Richard Shelby, R-Tuscaloosa, said through his office that Congress would review the plan and that he will work to make sure the Lunar Precursor Robotics Program "can move forward."

The $1 billion lunar robotics program has been described by NASA and Marshall leaders as a critical element of the space agency's exploration programs, which seek to return astronauts to the moon and possibly send them to Mars.

Budget shortfalls are part of the reason for delays and changes in the moon program work. NASA is operating under a continuing resolution that freezes all program money at the 2006 budget level.

Because the lunar robotics program office never really had a budget, it may have been an easy target to snatch from Marshall, said Mark McDaniel, a Huntsville lawyer and space policy adviser to members of Congress.

"Right now this is a recommendation, and it may not happen at all. The change from a Republican- to Democrat-controlled Congress at the end of last year left a whole lot of unfinished business, and, sadly, NASA's budget for this year was one of those," McDaniel said.

"I'm confident NASA as a whole, and Marshall's larger programs, are safe, but if this plan comes to fruition then it could just be temporary.

"Budgets and plans are always fluctuating."