May 28 2007

Lunar robotics office stays at flight center

Montgomery Advertiser

By Associated Press

A lunar robotics office that NASA Administrator Mike Griffin sought to move to Washington will remain at Marshall Space Flight Center with new work.

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, officials said.

The office also will continue to manage two planned NASA lunar probe missions and take on a new task: mapping the moon to find sites of scientific value, U.S. Sen. Richard Shelby says.

Shelby, R-Tuscaloosa, is ranking member of the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Commerce, Justice and Science, which votes on NASA's budget.

Shelby objected in April when Griffin proposed relocating the office in a budget move and waged a bipartisan drive in Congress to keep the office at Marshall.

NASA's plan to move the office "was a huge mistake," Shelby said Thursday. 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 told The Huntsville Times for a story Friday. "That timeline is under review."

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.

The reversal 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.

Cowing said it "makes a joke" of Griffin's leadership if he makes a decision, then reverses it because Shelby or Cramer "tell him to back off."

"How can NASA administrators actually manage if they constantly have Congress reversing decisions they don't like?" he asked.