Alabama Mayors Lament NASA's Shift from Moon Plan
Mayor Paul Finley of Madison, Alabama.
While President Barack Obama has outlined a new direction for NASA, the old direction still has staunch supporters.
The mayors of two Alabama cities that serve as home to many space agency workers are among the outspoken voices arguing to save NASA's Constellation program designed to send astronauts back to the moon.
Obama has proposed canceling the Constellation program in favor of sending humans to an asteroid and then to Mars. He aims to shut down Constellation's Ares rockets and repurpose its Orion spacecraft while looking to commercial companies to build spaceships to take people to low-Earth orbit and the International Space Station. A U.S. House of Representatives vote on NASA's new budget and space plan is expected for tomorrow (Sept. 29). [NASA's New Direction: FAQ]
But many are nervous to turn such a major responsibility of NASA's over to the untried private sector, said Tommy Battle, mayor of Huntsville, Ala., home to NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center, which was responsible for the Constellation program's Ares I and Ares V rockets.
"To say now that we're going to turn it over to a group that's not proven, who has no track record and their biggest achievement is that they?ve put a rocket into low-Earth orbit, which NASA did back in the 1960s, it just doesn?t make sense to our community," Battle told SPACE.com.
Paul Finley, mayor of the neighboring city of Madison, Ala., agreed.
"I'm the first to advocate anything that doesn?t need to be governmental? let me control my own destiny," he said. "But in that case I just don?t know how that's ever going to work."
Debate over the new plan is ongoing in Congress. A NASA authorization bill approved by the Senate in August largely shuts down Constellation and hews to the proposal set forth by the president.
If Constellation is abandoned, many jobs for the skilled workers at Marshall will be lost, the mayors said.
"These are not employees who have done anything wrong," Battle said. "These are employees who have worked a lifetime for a mission to make the United States number one in space exploration. And now to find that they're being laid off because a handful of people have a different idea? is a very frustrating thing for the community."
Another element of Obama's plan that galls the mayors is his goal for NASA to decide on a design for a new heavy-lift rocket by 2015. This is particularly cutting to the large Alabama community that specializes in heavy-lift engineering, Finley said.
"If you wait 'till 2015 you?re going to lose a majority of the core team that you so desperately need when you make the decision," Finley said. "You don't have the team that's needed to go do it."
There were some elements of the plan that the mayors supported, such as the ultimate goal of travel to Mars, but Battle argued that stopping at the moon first is a necessary precursor.
"You need to do that mini-trip before you do the deep space trip so that you can make sure you've learned all the lessons that you need," he said.
Ultimately, the future for NASA is still undetermined. And for those whose livelihoods depend on Constellation, that means there's still hope that some elements of the program may survive, the mayors said.
"I'm not sure that everybody's ready to give up the fight that Constellation is a foregone conclusion yet," Battle said."Congressionally and across the board, I think there's still support out there and it's just one of those issues that will probably be settled in the next Congress."
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