Apr 18 2007

Senators vow to back NASA

Huntsville Times

By WAYNE SMITH

WASHINGTON - Inside one of the most historic buildings on Capitol Hill, some key U.S. senators said Tuesday that they are committed to the future of spaceflight.

"If America is going to remain No. 1 in innovation, it will come from America's space agency," said Sen. Barbara Mikulski, D-Md., who chairs a subcommittee that oversees NASA's budget. "We need to stay pre-eminent in innovation, and the agency that has been responsible for more technological advancements than any other is America's space program."

Mikulski spoke Tuesday morning to a group of leaders from the Huntsville/Madison County and Decatur/Morgan County chambers in the Caucus Room of the Russell Senate Office Building. The room was the site of Sen. Joseph McCarthy's hearings in 1954, as well as for hearings on Watergate and the sinking of the Titanic.

Tuesday, however, the focus was on NASA's future during a breakfast hosted by Alabama Sens. Richard Shelby, R-Tuscaloosa, and Jeff Sessions, R-Mobile. The meeting came a day after NASA Administrator Mike Griffin told the group that the space agency won't be able to grow unless budget cuts are restored. Griffin said if this year's budget cut is a trend, the agency will lose more than $3 billion during the next five years. Those cuts would cut into manned spaceflight.

Marshall Space Flight Center is in charge of NASA's rocket program.

Mikulski also discussed the Marshall-managed lunar robotics program. Last week, she worked with Shelby and U.S. Rep. Alan Mollohan, D-W.Va., to write a letter directing NASA to restore $20 million for the Lunar Precursor and Robotics Program office. NASA has said the program would be shut down and 32 employees moved to other work.

"We need to go back to the moon, and what you heard yesterday was just talk," Mikulski said Tuesday. "We want to work with the NASA administrator to make sure we have reliable transportation to take us there.

"We know if it's made in Huntsville, we can count on it. We want to make sure we keep (space travel plans) on time and on schedule."

Mikulski said she plans to call for a summit with President Bush to discuss the future of NASA. She said space exploration is not just important for technology and exploration, but also for national security.

"China also wants to go to the moon, and they want the moon to become a military base in space," she said. "We've got to get back to the moon first and be able to stay there. The nation's investment in space should be one of our top national security priorities."

Sen. Bill Nelson, a Florida Democrat recognized as one of the congressional experts on NASA, said funding the agency will be an issue for the fiscal 2008 budget. He said budget cuts have already widened the gap between when the shuttle retires and the next generation of rockets is ready, from 2010 to 2015.

He wants to see the gap closed to three years.

"During that time, we'll be depending on Russia or someone else to carry cargo into space for the International Space Station," Nelson said. "Who knows what the politics will be like then? Will Russia still be with us? We have to have reliable transportation on American systems."

Meanwhile, U.S. Rep. Bud Cramer, D-Huntsville, said Tuesday that he is frustrated with NASA's plans to shut down the lunar robotics office.

"We've fought for the NASA budget at the highest levels," Cramer told the chamber leaders. "Now, to hear from headquarters that they want to unplug the lunar robotics office at Marshall is awfully frustrating."

Cramer said he wants to meet with Griffin to discuss the issue.

"I hope we, as an Alabama delegation, can work through this awkward time," Cramer said. "We're going to make it clear that we are going to be listened to.

"We want to be supportive, but we think we've earned our right to question decisions like this and have them fully explained to us.''