Apr 14 2009

Shelby: 'Ares plays big role' in NASA's future

By SHELBY G. SPIRES

Senator says U.S. should find way to work with China

Although garnering work and federal dollars could be tougher without a NASA chief or a permanent head of Marshall Space Flight Center, Sen. Richard Shelby said Monday that conflicting priorities about NASA cannot be allowed to derail plans to replace the space shuttle with Huntsville-managed rockets.

Alabama's senior senator also said that America should not turn its back on partnerships with nation's like China, where relations have been strained.

The Tuscaloosa Republican told The Times editorial board that America probably could not afford to continue flying the space shuttle past its planned September 2010 retirement date, continue supporting the $100 billion space station beyond 2015 and build the shuttle's intended successor, the Ares I.

There has been support for extending the shuttle program in Congress, and last week a NASA delegation met with 14 other partners of the $100 billion International Space Station program and agreed to review extending that program five more years until 2020.

Shelby said there isn't enough money in the federal budget to do everything "and something probably will have to give."

"With only so much resources out there, I think we ought to move forward," Shelby said. "You always have to be looking to the future. What is the next step?

"Ares plays a big role in that."

It could be harder to manage since NASA and Marshall Space Flight Center have no permanent administrator - former NASA head Dr. Mike Griffin stepped down in January and Marshall chief Dave King retired earlier this month.

Shelby has told every NASA administrator he has worked with "candidly that my interest is Marshall, and their initiatives for now and the future," he said.

Because NASA is facing shrinking budgets to achieve its goals, it may be necessary to expand and look for other nations to join the station program. Shelby said it would be in the United States' interest to work with China on a station partnership.

"You have to look at China through several prisms. One, China is going to be here," Shelby said. "Their economy and technology base is going to continue to grow. I think we can work with them."

Shelby said any agreements would need to take into account the risk of China acquiring secret technology versus what would be gained by furthering diplomatic relations with the world's largest nation.

"Will China benefit militarily from this? Sure, I think they will," Shelby said. "That's a risk you take. I think you look at China as a great opportunity and a great challenge."

Shelby did speak about federal budget problems, saying that part of the problem with budget planning is due to earmarks - special line items inserted by the White House and members of Congress aimed at bringing money to states and home districts.

"There have been abuses in earmarking money," Shelby said. "Of course the biggest earmarker of them all is the president. It doesn't matter which one you are speaking about Obama, Bush, before him Clinton ... they want to earmark everything. The (president) doesn't want the Congress to do it.

"If I were the president I wouldn't want them to do it, either. I'd be against all earmarks unless they were mine."

Special earmark appropriations for Alabama from Shelby's office are "always out there," he said. "We always release them. We have nothing to hide."