NASA Administrator Mike Griffin says sound program management, not politics, was the motive in moving a prized lunar robotics program office from California to Alabama.

NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala., learned May 26 that it had been given an important additional management role in the U.S. space agency’s lunar robotics efforts. Marshall already had been assigned responsibility in December for doing the early planning for a proposed robotic lunar lander that the agency expects to launch around 2011.

For NASA’s Ames Research Center in Moffett Field, Calif., which had been given the lunar robotics program office last August, the unexpected reassignment meant losing a high-profile role in the agency’s space exploration efforts, but gaining some new responsibilities.

As part of the changes outlined in a May 26 memorandum from NASA’s associate administrator for exploration systems, Scott Horowitz, a lunar projects office dedicated to the development of small spacecraft to support exploration will be established at Ames. In addition, the memo says, Ames also will be given “new responsibilities as lead for information technology and thermal protection systems for the exploration effort.”

Ames also will keep the Lunar Crater Observation and Sensing Satellite project, a $73 million piggyback mission NASA selected the center in April to build in time to launch along with Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter in 2008.

The Horowitz memo informed the directors of Ames and Marshall, as well as several other senior officials, that the Robotic Lunar Exploration Program (RLEP) that Ames had been managing had been renamed the Lunar Precursor and Robotic Program and would be reassigned to Marshall. Marshall’s Tony Lavoie, currently on detail at NASA headquarters here, was named acting program manager for the renamed and revamped lunar robotics program.

“These changes will allow a greater synergy between the development of the overall architecture for the Moon, precursor activities needed for Constellation Systems, and their direct interrelationship with eventual lunar surface activities,” Horowitz wrote in his memo, a copy of which was provided by NASA.

The reassignment came as a shock and disappointment to employees at Ames, which had received passing marks from NASA headquarters for its management of the lunar robotics program. A so-called Program Readiness Review conducted by NASA’s Office of Program Analysis and Evaluation in December found that the Ames-based office was ready to execute the robotics program. A second NASA headquarters-ordered review, a so-called a Non-Advocate Review, was wrapping up the same week the reassignment was made. Sources familiar with the review said it, too, gave Ames a passing grade for its management of the program.

Ames Research Center Director Simon “Pete” Worden, in a blog he uses to communicate with the field center’s 1,250 civil servants, suggested in a May 30 posting that “Congressional politics (read jobs)” was a factor in NASA reassigning the program office to Marshall.

“I’ve long been a critic of NASA’s ‘self-licking ice cream cone’ problem. By this I mean that Congressional politics (read jobs) often dictates what we do more than technical excellence,” Worden wrote. “My first meeting with some of the other Center Directors made me feel like a little boy at the first day of school. Several playground bullies came up to me and asked if Mommy had given me any lunch money. When I nodded they suggested I give it to them for ‘safekeeping.’ Well one of them got some of that money called RLEP.”

Worden’s on line analysis — since retracted — was read both inside the agency and by outsiders. That helped fuel widespread speculation that Alabama’s powerful congressional delegation was somehow involved in the decision. Adding to the political appearance, Rep. Robert “Bud” Cramer (D-Ala.), an appropriator whose congressional district includes Marshall, issued a press release May 26 applauding the reassignment.

For the executive director of the National Space Society, a membership organization normally supportive of NASA, the decision “smelled a little bit.”

“Either it’s congressional interference or it’s hasty decision making within NASA,” National Space Society Executive Director George Whitesides told Space News. “Either way it doesn’t seem like a good way to run your space program.”

Worden said in a June 1 interview that he no longer believed that the decision was political, saying he posted his blog entry “before I knew all the facts.”

Griffin also said that political considerations were not a factor in the reassignment. “It was not politically inclined,” Griffin said in a May 31 interview. “There were no conversations at all with any of the Alabama delegation on this topic. This move was made on its management merits, quite frankly.”

Marshall spokeswoman Kim Newton said the Alabama field center’s “strong engineering capabilities,” not political pull, “warranted the work coming to Marshall.”

“There was no pre-coordination or prior discussion of the matter with the Alabama delegation,” she said.

A spokeswoman for one key Alabama lawmaker, Sen. Richard Shelby, the Republican chairman of the Senate Appropriations subcommittee that oversees NASA, said the agency received no prodding from her boss to relocate the program office to Marshall. “Of course this is an exciting opportunity for Marshall, but he does not take credit for the move,” Shelby spokesman Katie Boyd said June 2. “No one from this office, including the senator, has ever asked NASA to move the program office.”

While Shelby and Cramer were notified by NASA May 26 that the reassignment was about to be announced, at least one California lawmaker also was given the heads up. An aide to Rep. Mike Honda (D-Calif.) said the Ames-area congressman’s Washington office received e-mail notification from NASA May 26 at 1:18 p.m. that an announcement about the reassignment would be going out shortly.

Horowitz told Space News that the changes announced in his May 26 memo had been in formulation for a long time and were the result of a broad reassessment of how best to organize all the work NASA must do to develop and field the array of new human and robotic spacecraft needed to put astronauts on the Moon around 2018.

A major factor in the reassignment, Horowitz said, was a desire to get more synergy between the robotic lunar program and the early work Marshall will be doing on the human lunar lander’s descent stage. Another related factor, he said, was Worden arriving at Ames with the right experience and inclination to turn Ames into a leader in the development of small, low-cost space missions that support lunar exploration.

Worden, for his part, said the changes under way would be a “net positive” for Ames. “As a center director I am naturally disappointed when one job goes someplace else and not here,” Worden said. “But there are some other opportunities here that I am pretty pumped about.” In particular, Worden said he was eager to show that low-cost, fast-paced missions costing as little as $50 million can play big roles in lunar exploration.