Two U.S. lawmakers are citing Surrey Satellite Technology Ltd.’s ties to China in urging NASA to cancel an agency-funded small-satellite research and education partnership between the British company and
Mississippi State University.
Surrey Satellite announced in August that it had been awarded a contract by the university
to study a potential U.S.-U.K. lunar orbiter mission to be called Magnolia. The first nine-month phase of the contract
would culminate in a preliminary mission design and include
training for the school and for NASA’s Stennis Space Center on the small satellite know-how Surrey has accrued over the last 25 years, Surrey’s press release said.
The second phase of the contract, Surrey said, would start in 2008 and could lead to the launch of the Magnolia mission in 2010.
A NASA official said Mississippi State
was funding the research and education partnership using congressional earmark money disbursed through Stennis, which is located near Bay St. Louis, Miss
Chuck Hill, deputy director of Mississippi State University’s Remote Sensing Center, said the $2 million research and education partnership would allow Mississippi State faculty to learn small satellite design from arguable the most experienced firm in the business. He said Mississippi State has no expectation that Magnolia will actually get built. “This is an academic exercise to ensure that this capability makes its way to the U.S.,” Hill said Nov. 8. “We are interested in [Surrey’s] model and our desire is to be able to produce engineers who can replicate that here.”
A U.S. Army space official familiar with the program said Mississippi State stands to learn a lot from Surrey about innovative, low-cost satellite design. “There is a spectrum of good ideas on this planet. Mississippi State is smart to go off shore and look at some of them,” the Army official said.
Reps. Frank Wolfe and Randy Forbes, both Republicans from Virginia, are not happy that U.S. companies were not given an opportunity to compete for the work.
“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,” Wolfe and Forbes wrote in a Nov. 6 letter to NASA Administrator Mike Griffin.
“We ask that you consider opening this project and similar ones to competition by U.S. companies and carefully scrutinize joint ventures with foreign companies that have the potential of divulging sensitive information,” the lawmakers said
Wolfe is a member of the House Appropriations Committee. His Northern Virginia congressional district is home to two small satellite builders:
of Ashburn and
Orbital Sciences Corp. of Dulles.
Forbes, a member of the House Judiciary and Armed Services
committees, represents Virginia’s 4th
Congressional District in the southeast corner of the state.