Apr 15 2007

Congress encourages robotic missions

Associated Press

HUNTSVILLE (AP) — A lunar robotics office at Marshall Space Flight Center in Hunts-ville is targeted for closing by NASA, but the program has $20 million in federal funding for the rest of the year.

“The lunar precursor program and robotic missions are vital to the future of placing man on the moon and eventually Mars,” said Sen. Richard Shelby.

The chairmen of the subcommittee that oversees NASA funding wrote to Administrator Michael Griffin this week and directed the agency to continue planning the robotic missions through the rest of 2007.

In the letter, provided by Shelby’s office, Sen. Barbara Mikulski, D-Md., and Rep. Alan Mollohan, D-W.Va., said that President Bush originally called for a robotic mission to Mars before the manned missions, and Congress agreed.

So when NASA decided the missions were no longer necessary, especially in a tight budget, Congress reacted.

“These are continuing and important goals for our space program,” Shelby said Friday, calling NASA’s decision premature. “We must fund this program to fulfill our plan for lunar exploration and to ensure that that Marshall Space Flight Center continues to be a major component in space exploration, because it is much more than just a rocket center.”

The letter doesn’t specifically request that the office remain at Marshall, but restoring the budget money is the first step to keeping it open, according to Shelby’s office.

The Marshall office has 32 employees. NASA wants to transfer the work to its headquarters in Washington, D.C.

Rep. Robert Aderholt asked Griffin about the NASA decision in a recent congressional hearing. Griffin testified the robotic missions were “nice to have” but not necessary.

Aderholt said Friday that NASA funding was too low and Griffin “had to find something to cut.” But Aderholt supports efforts to restore the money.

Rep. Bud Cramer, whose district includes Huntsville, said the cancellation “could adversely affect the space exploration plan.”

The Lunar Precursor and Robotic Program was originally billed as a way to reduce the risks of returning humans to the moon by 2020, such as examining radiation in the lunar environment and mapping.

A NASA spokesman said the robotic lunar lander was canceled to free up funding for the Orion Crew Exploration Vehicle and Ares I launch vehicle and that NASA is working to redirect the employees to other NASA programs.

“We believe we can meet the requirements as outlined in the letter in our execution of the Robotic Lunar Exploration Program,” spokesman Bob Jacobs said.

Jacobs said plans were on track as of late Friday to close the Marshall office.