Apr 23 2007

Robotics office still open for now

Huntsville Times

By SHELBY G. SPIRES

Plan to move Marshall program under review

A lunar robotics office will remain open at Marshall Space Flight Center while NASA's operating plan to move it to Washington is under review, a NASA spokesman said Sunday.

The 32-employee Lunar Precursor and Robotics Program office had been scheduled to be moved because of federal budget shortfalls.

Sen. Richard Shelby, R-Tuscaloosa, worked with Sen. Barbara Mikulski, D-Md., and U.S. Rep. Alan Mollohan, D-W. Va., this month to write a letter directing NASA to restore $20 million for the robotics office. Mikulski and Mollohan chair subcommittees that oversee NASA's budget.

"The initial position within NASA has changed with regard to this office," said Bob Jacobs, NASA spokesman in Washington. "The operations plan that would have moved this office is under review, and the office, and its work, remains open at Marshall Space Flight Center."

The office has two missions - the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter and the Lunar Crater Observation and Sensing Satellite - which are on schedule and will continue, Jacobs said. They are slated for launch in late 2008.

The Marshall office had been planning a lunar-probe mission that is planned to land on the moon and serve as a technology-development program for a human lander. That mission, which had been slated for cancellation, is now under review, Jacobs said.

Shelby said Sunday that NASA must work to resolve the lunar-exploration issues it had promised to complete.

"My office had been informed that plans are in works to try with NASA to resolve this issue, but NASA must live up to its commitments to move forward with the lunar robotics program with Marshall Space Flight Center," Shelby said.

Part of NASA's troubles with the office stem from the fact the space agency is working under a budget freeze. The White House asked for a $16.8 billion NASA budget but, because Congress could not come to an agreement late in 2006 over the current year's spending plan, the space agency budget was capped at around $16 billion.

This means new programs, such as the lunar lander, are stymied, space experts say.

Another problem with the lunar robotics office is that the probe had been expanded beyond its original mission, said Keith Cowing, a former NASA employee who now runs the agency watchdog Web site NASAWatch.com.

"Part of this issue has always been massive cost growth," Cowing said. "It's ballooned from a $300 million to $400 million program to double. It's something around $1 billion now."

Cowing said a simple lunar lander, similar to the ones put on the moon during the Apollo missions "has grown from a simple design to a battleship. It has more requirements and mission responsibility than originally planned."

The lander was originally intended to land on one of the moon's poles in an attempt to seek out water or ice.

NASA has been looking at several exotic concepts such as flying probes and moon rovers as part of the lander concept.

"That mission had grown to something far more complicated. And that's why it is over budget," Cowing said.