May 25 2007

Lunar robotics office staying put, NASA says

The Huntsville Times

By SHELBY G. SPIRES

Decision follows after Shelby balked at move to D.C.

A lunar robotics office that NASA Administrator Mike Griffin wanted to move to Washington, D.C., will remain at Marshall Space Flight Center with new work, NASA officials and U.S. Sen. Richard Shelby's office confirmed Thursday.

But the fate of a lunar lander probe is still under review.

The 32-employee Lunar Precursor Robotic Program office will be included in the NASA budget at $20 million a year for the next six years. Also, the office will continue to manage two planned NASA lunar probe missions and begin a new assignment: mapping the moon to find sites of scientific value, Shelby's office said.

Shelby, R-Tuscaloosa, balked in April when Griffin proposed moving the office because of budget problems. Shelby worked with Democrats and Republicans in Congress to keep the office at Marshall.

NASA's plan to move the office "was a huge mistake," Shelby said. The lunar robotics office, he said, will provide "critical data" for manned flights to the moon and a long-term presence in space.

U.S. Rep. Bud Cramer, D-Huntsville, said the robotics office could be a cornerstone in developing future Marshall propulsion work.

"The Lunar Precursor Robotics Program office is vital to the future of this country's space program," Cramer said in a statement. "I was glad to work with our state delegation, led by Sen. Shelby, to keep the LPRP office open while adding new roles.

"We have expertise in propulsion and a number of other areas that are critical to NASA's missions and I'm pleased that this fact was recognized."

The office has two probes - the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter and the Lunar Crater Observation and Sensing Satellite - scheduled to launch to the moon in late 2008. But a third mission - the lunar lander probe - is still under study, said David Mould, a NASA spokesman in Washington.

"That project is a high priority, but the question is when the lander work needs to be done for lunar missions that are some years out," Mould said. "That timeline is under review."

Shelby said the lunar office is an important part of Marshall's work.

"I am glad that NASA recognized Marshall as much more than a rocket center," he said. "We must ensure that the talented staff at the space center continues to play a key role in America's expanding efforts in space."

Budget pressures

Shelby worked with Sen. Barbara Mikulski, D-Md., and U.S. Rep. Alan Mollohan, D-W.Va., in April to write a letter directing NASA to restore $20 million for the robotics office. Mikulski and Mollohan chair subcommittees that oversee NASA's budget. Shelby is ranking member of the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Commerce, Justice and Science, which votes on NASA's budget.

Griffin's proposal to move the office to Washington would have effectively closed down the work. He wanted to slash its $20 million-a-year budget as a way to help make up a $577 million shortage NASA faces this budget year.

Griffin sent Shelby's office a letter Wednesday saying that the office would remain at Marshall and that several other programs, including a NASA education program and a future space telescope mission, would be included in the budget.

Reversing the decision could become a problem for Griffin and his successors, and "it opens up their decisions for further second-guessing," said Keith Cowing, who runs NASAWatch.com.

"It makes a joke of any leadership on Mike Griffin's part if he makes a decision and then he reverses it because Senator Shelby or (Rep. Bud) Cramer tell him to back off," Cowing said. "How can NASA administrators actually manage if they constantly have Congress reversing decisions they don't like?"