Responding to a pair of U.S. congressmen upset that Mississippi State University (MSU) is paying Surrey Satellite Technology around $2 million to teach its faculty about small satellite design, NASA Administrator Mike Griffin
said the U.S. space agency has no plans to continue supporting the effort once current funding runs out.
Reps. Frank Wolf and Randy Forbes, both Republicans from Virginia, wrote Griffin Nov. 6 complaining that money appropriated for NASA has found its way to a non-U.S. company that has sold satellites to China, something American firms have been barred from doing.
Surrey is collaborating with Mississippi State on a lunar orbiter study.
Wolf and Forbes said U.S. companies should have been given the opportunity to assist Mississippi State with its lunar orbiter concept – dubbed Magnolia in honor
of the state flower – and urged NASA to pull the plug on the budding partnership.
“We are concerned that NASA funding is going directly to a foreign company with a record of aiding the Chinese military expansion into space. Most troubling is that there appears to have been no competitive process for this project. U.S. companies did not even have an opportunity to bid on this potentially sensitive space mission. This is not acceptable,” the lawmakers wrote.
In his Nov. 13 written response to Wolf and Forbes, a copy of which was obtained by Space News, Griffin said Mississippi State used money from a 2006 congressional budget earmark to send faculty to Surrey Satellite and the affiliated University of Surrey Space Center for an extended period to learn the ins and outs of rapid, low-cost satellite engineering from one of the world’s leaders in the field.
Griffin defends the so-called Know-How Transfer and Training program as “invaluable for MSU’s plan to build an academic program in spacecraft engineering” but points out that the space mission for which U.S. companies were denied an opportunity to bid is only a design study. “While the design study has relevance to the long-term objectives of NASA’s Exploration program, NASA has not budgeted, and has no plans, for any additional work on this project beyond the current FY-2006 funded design study,” Griffin wrote.
Under the so-called continuing resolution Congress adopted early this year to dispatch a pile of unfinished spending bills, most U.S. government agencies were given a repeat of their 2006 budgets, earmarks and all.
Griffin also addressed Wolf and Forbes’ concern about U.S. technological know-how reaching the Chinese via Mississippi State’s interaction with Surrey, saying “the technology flow is predominately” in the other direction – from Surrey to Mississippi State. “In addition, [Mississippi State], like any university, is subject to export control laws and regulations,” Griffin wrote.
In announcing the partnership this summer, Surrey Satellite said it hoped to see Magnolia blossom into the first joint U.S.-UK robotic lunar mission. Chuck Hill, deputy director of Mississippi State University’s Remote Sensing Center, told Space News in a
Nov. 8 interview that the school has no expectation Magnolia will ever get built.
But other small satellite proponents, including some at NASA, are supportive of Magnolia and would like to see a place like Mississippi State given a shot at becoming the Surrey of the United States. They point out that NASA and the British National Space Centre agreed in April to look for ways to cooperate in space exploration. Should the British propose a low-cost lunar mission as a way to contribute, Surrey would almost certainly get the nod, these proponents said, and Mississippi State would be well positioned to be their U.S. counterpart.
The university, these supporters said, also has the benefit of a close working relationship with NASA’s Stennis Space Center
in Bay St. Louis, Miss., and, perhaps more importantly, has the state’s two powerful senators in its corner: Republicans Trent Lott, the Senate minority leader, and Thad Cochran
, the top Republican on the Senate Appropriations Committee.
Mississippi State also has an important alumnus well-positioned inside NASA should he chose to help out: Richard Gilbrech, NASA’s associate administrator for exploration systems – the mission directorate responsible for lunar exploration – earned his bachelor’s degree from Mississippi State and began his career at Stennis after earning advanced degrees from the California Institute of Technology. Gilbrech was serving as director of Stennis when he was tapped this summer to come to Washington and lead the Exploration Systems Mission Directorate.
In the past year, budget considerations have prompted Exploration Systems to scrap its plans to follow the 2008 Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter with a series of robotic missions to start looking abroad for opportunities to gather more information on the Moon before sending astronauts back there for the first time since 1972.