Apr 18 2007

NASA rethinks plan to close robotics office

Birmingham News

By MARY ORNDORFF

WASHINGTON - NASA is reconsidering plans to close a lunar robotics office in Huntsville, a decision announced Tuesday evening, a few hours after two members of Alabama's congressional delegation escalated their dispute with the space agency.

Sen. Richard Shelby, R-Ala., in a morning speech said he was counting the days until NASA Administrator Michael Griffin lost his job. And Rep. Bud Cramer, D-Huntsville, in an afternoon interview questioned whether Griffin misled him about the future of the Lunar Precursor Robotics Program, based at Marshall Space Flight Center.

By early evening, NASA was no longer saying the program was on the chopping block.

"The bottom line for us is that discussion regarding the (operating) plan is ongoing within NASA," spokesman Bob Jacobs said. "It is premature to say at this point what's in and what's out."

The spat developed a few weeks ago when NASA submitted its 2007 spending plan to Congress without funding for the office. Griffin said the lunar robotic lander was no longer necessary before a manned mission to the Moon because the data could be collected from orbit. Cramer is skeptical of that explanation.

"I think I'm being finessed with that," Cramer said Tuesday. "I don't buy it right now."

About 30 people are employed at the office in Huntsville, but the overall program includes employees in Maryland and California. The Democratic chairmen of the appropriations subcommittee that funds NASA last week ordered the agency to redirect $20 million to continue planning for the robotic mission, but it wasn't until Tuesday that NASA said it was reconsidering the closure.

Shelby, in a morning speech to about 200 people from the Huntsville and Madison County area, said he and Cramer and Sen. Jeff Sessions were not getting along with Griffin.

"We have been working together up until now. We're not doing so well at the moment," Shelby said. "I'm counting the days, one year and eight-and-a-half months and we'll have a new administrator."

The delegation has a long history of disputes with NASA chiefs as the agency has wrestled with budget cuts and the controversial movement of missions and programs from one state to another. Cramer said he has not objected to every small program that Marshall has lost over the years, and he was assured last year that the lunar robotics lander had a solid future.

"It's not like we don't have some history of giving and taking here, but this one I don't understand," Cramer said.