WASHINGTON — NASA will keep open a lunar robotics office at its Alabama field center, fund its West Virginia software testing facility at last year’s level, spend more money on education efforts than it would prefer, and pay for a Maryland lab to study a flagship-class Solar Probe mission the U.S. space agency does not expect to be able to afford any time soon. All these decisions were made last month at the behest of key U.S. lawmakers who had objected to NASA’s first stab at a detailed spending plan for 2007, also known as an operating plan. NASA is required by law to inform Congress of any significant departures from its approved spending requests.
In an April 10 letter to NASA Administrator Mike Griffin responding to the agency’s operating plan, the top Democrats on the House and Senate appropriations panels that fund NASA – Rep. Allan Mollohan (W.Va.) and Sen. Barbara Mikulski (Md.) – took issue with NASA’s decision to defer indefinitely further robotic exploration of the Moon beyond the 2008 Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter mission and directed the agency to spend $20 million this year planning for future missions.
Mikulski and Mollohan also objected to NASA’s plan to cut $54.6 million from its education programs, telling Griffin they expected him to add back at least $27 million. Among the other concerns raised by the lawmakers were inadequate funding for NASA’s Independent Verification and Validation (IV&V) facility in Fairmont, W.Va., and the need to press on with a Solar Probe mission that would be led by the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory in Laurel, Md.
A source familiar with Griffin’s May 23 response to the lawmakers said the NASA chief acceded to all of Mikulski and Mollohan’s requests. NASA’s revised operating plan, the source said, includes the additional $27 million for education, more money for the IV&V facility, the requested $5 million for a Solar Probe mission feasibility study, and a promised $20 million annual budget for the lunar robotics program office at Marshall Space Flight Center.
NASA came under intense fire from Alabama’s congressional delegation after the agency revealed its plan to shutter the Marshall office and move its oversight functions back to headquarters. Sen. Richard Shelby, the top Republican on the Senate Appropriations commerce, justice, science subcommittee, was especially salty, telling a Huntsville audience he was “counting the days” until the end of Griffin’s tenure in the job.
Scott Horowitz, NASA’s associate administrator for exploration systems, told reporters May 31 that the Marshall office would be assigned several functions that would otherwise have been done elsewhere in light of the agency’s decision to scrap plans for a robotic lunar lander.
Horowitz said the program office would continue to oversee the development of the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO) and its smaller companion, the Lunar Crater and Observation and Sensing Satellite, or LCROSS.
While neither spacecraft is being built at Marshall — NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md., is in charge of LRO while NASA’s Ames Research Center near San Francisco is building LCROSS – Horowitz said the Marshall program office’s No. 1 job will be keeping the two projects in synch as they head toward their October 2008 launch.
In addition, Horowitz said, the office would take on a new responsibility – integrating lunar mapping data from the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter and multiple international probes bound for the Moon, such as India’s Chandrayan-1 and Japan’s Selene missions. The Marshall office also will be responsible for sifting through Moon-bound spacecraft telemetry for engineering data useful to NASA’s Constellation program, which encompasses the Orion Crew Exploration Vehicles, its Ares 1 rocket and the other hardware needed to mount human lunar expeditions.
“There’s going to be a huge amount of data and getting that in the right format and getting the engineering data out of that is required by Constellation is a program office function,” Horowitz said.
According to a source, Griffin in his letter also informed lawmakers that due to the higher priority of fielding the Orion and its Ares 1 launcher, NASA cannot afford to immediately follow LRO and LCROSS with new lunar robotic missions, but said such projects remain a goal.
Orion’s first crewed flight currently is slated for no later than March 2015, some four-and-a-half years after the space shuttle is due to fly its last mission.
NASA’s present budget crunch stems from a decision made by Congress late last year to forgo passing individual spending bills and instead fund most government agencies for the remainder of 2007 at their 2006 levels. For NASA, that has meant making do with $16.2 billion, or about $545 million less than it requested.
NASA got some fiscal relief in the $100 billion Iraq war supplemental President George W. Bush signed into law May 26. Included among the bill’s many non-military earmarks was an additional $20 million for NASA’s several Gulf Coast facilities damaged in 2005 by Hurricane Katrina. The bill also contained $48 million in transfer authority the agency had been seeking to pay back budget accounts that were raided to fund NASA’s immediate response to the hurricane.