WASHINGTON — U.S. Sen. Richard Shelby of Alabama, the top Republican on the Senate Appropriations Committee, is now also the top Republican on the Appropriations subcommittee that drafts annual spending bills for NASA and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Shelby will serve alongside fellow NASA champion Sen. Barbara Mikulski, the Maryland Democrat who retained the chairmanship of the Senate Appropriations commerce, justice, science subcommittee even as she took over the full committee last month following the death of Sen. Daniel Inouye (D-Hawaii).

Shelby is known as a fierce defender of NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala. Marshall is the hub for work on NASA’s Space Launch System, the heavy-lift rocket NASA is building with shuttle-heritage components for deep-space missions. Shelby has been supportive of this work, which has its roots in the canceled Constellation Moon return program, but deeply skeptical of NASA’s Commercial Crew Program, an initiative to develop privately operated astronaut taxis to service low Earth orbit and the international space station.

The full Senate Appropriations Committee announced Shelby’s appointment to the commerce, justice, science subcommittee Feb. 12.

He replaces former Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, the Texas Republican who retired in January after 24 years in the Senate. Hutchison was instrumental in the creation of the Space Launch System and its companion crew capsule, the Orion Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle.

Meanwhile, during its Feb. 12 organizational meeting, the Senate Commerce Committee returned Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.) to the chairmanship of the science and space subcommittee. Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas), who was elected in November to replace Hutchison, will serve as the subcommittee’s ranking member.

In addition to Mikulski and Shelby, the lawmakers formally named to the Senate Appropriations commerce, justice, science subcommittee are:

Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.)

Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.)

Sen. Jack Reed (D-R.I.)

Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.)

Sen. Mark Pryor (Ark.)

Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-La.)

Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.)

Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.)

Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.)

Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.)

Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine)

Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska)

Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.)

Sen. Mark Kirk (R-Ill.)

Sen. John Boozman (R-Ark.)

Dan Leone is the NASA reporter for SpaceNews, where he also covers other civilian-run U.S. government space programs and a growing number of entrepreneurial space companies. He joined SpaceNews in 2011.Dan earned a bachelor's degree in public communications...