May 25 2007

NASA to keep lunar robotics program in Huntsville open

The Birmingham News

By MARY ORNDORFF

WASHINGTON - A robotics program to prepare for the next manned trip to the moon will remain in Huntsville after Alabama's congressional delegation protested NASA's plan to close the management office at Marshall Space Flight Center.

NASA officials have now committed $120 million to the Lunar Precursor Robotic Program over the next six years, according to Sen. Richard Shelby, who announced the reversal Thursday. A NASA spokesman confirmed the deal.

"I thought NASA's decision to close (it) was a huge mistake," Shelby said in a prepared statement.

The Lunar Precursor Robotic Program includes the study of radiation and mapping the moon's surface before the planned mission by 2020. But in the spring NASA officials said they were going to redirect funding for a robotic lunar lander to other higher priority programs, and rely more on studying the surface from orbit. 

Shelby and Rep. Bud Cramer, D-Huntsville, complained and helped convince other members of Congress to insist on preserving the office with $20 million in 2007. At one point, Shelby and Cramer publicly criticized NASA Administrator Michael Griffin's job performance. In April, NASA said it would reconsider and on Wednesday formally agreed to keep it open.

Griffin, in a letter to Shelby, said the office will continue oversight of the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter and the Lunar Crater Observation and Sensing Mission, as well as some new responsibilities. It also said NASA planned to try and leverage the work on robotic lunar missions done by other countries or the private sector, but that no lunar robotic missions were planned "in the near-term."

"The people at Marshall are capable and talented and must be utilized if we are to be successful in space exploration," Cramer said in a prepared statement.