Its space jobs in jeopardy, Ala. comes a-courtin'

Mikulski's coffers swell with Huntsville-area cash

March 07, 2010|By Paul West |

WASHINGTON — — Does Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski back President Barack Obama's plan to shut down America's moon-landing program?

The future of some local economies could turn on her answer. What the Maryland senator thinks might well affect hundreds of aerospace firms from Florida to Utah that feed off the NASA program, including more than two dozen companies in northern Alabama, where the new moon rocket is being developed.

"She's incredibly important," said Shar Hendrick, a leader of Huntsville's aerospace community and former congressional liaison at NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center there. "We're looking for signs."

Mikulski, who chairs the Senate panel that funds NASA, isn't tipping her hand. Her carefully worded reaction to Obama's proposed new direction for America's space program may point the way to a compromise that preserves portions of the program under different names. Then again, maybe not.

Obama wants to end the moon program, which is years behind schedule and billions of dollars over budget, largely as an austerity move. That has senators and congressmen from states with NASA centers maneuvering to keep lucrative local pieces of the program alive.

"The principal problem," said lobbyist Robert S. Walker, a former Republican representative from Pennsylvania with long experience in space politics, "is that there isn't enough money for all of them to do what they do."

Few communities are fighting harder to keep the money flowing than Huntsville, where Wernher von Braun conceived the giant Saturn V rocket that launched Americans to the first moon landing in 1969. And Mikulski's campaign fundraising shows that the ties between Huntsville and the Maryland senator are stronger than might be expected.

Last September, a report by a panel of space experts, appointed by Obama, rattled northern Alabama. It described the U.S. human space program as "unsustainable" and raised serious questions about the moon project, known as Constellation. On Oct. 22, the panel recommended canceling the big launcher under development in Huntsville that would be used to return Americans to the lunar surface, half a century later.

Killing the rocket program could cost the area hundreds of jobs. NASA pegged the value of Alabama-based contracts related to development of the Ares I launcher at more than $74.5 million in 2008. If Congress goes along with Obama's plan to shift the emphasis of the space program toward commercial ventures, local officials fear a brain drain to other parts of the country.

Only days after the blue-ribbon panel gave Congress its report, Alabama business and industry leaders were able to convey their concerns directly to Mikulski. She was the guest of honor at a fundraising breakfast for her 2010 re-election campaign, held at the Embassy Suites Huntsville Hotel & Spa, which adjoins the Von Braun convention center.

People with knowledge of the fundraiser say that one of Alabama's most powerful politicians, Republican Sen. Richard C. Shelby, worked behind the scenes to make sure the event was a success, which would be an extremely unusual example of fundraising cooperation across party lines.

"Shelby didn't put his fingerprints on it, but he wanted it to happen," said one donor who was granted anonymity to discuss the powerful senator.

Tom Young, who served as Shelby's top Senate aide for a dozen years, was one of the leaders in arranging the event, according to several of those involved, including former Rep. Robert E. "Bud" Cramer, one of the hosts, who introduced Mikulski to the audience. Cramer and two others who attended said they believe that Young was at the breakfast, but his name does not appear on the list of donors Mikulski's campaign filed with the Federal Election Commission.

Young, president of Kord Technologies, a NASA contractor in Huntsville and a member of a local task force now lobbying Congress to keep the rocket program alive, declined to discuss his involvement. He terminated a phone interview by saying he didn't feel comfortable talking to a reporter.

A Shelby spokesman, Jonathan Graffeo, said in an e-mailed statement that Shelby "has known Sen. Mikulski for over 30 years and has a great deal of respect for her. They have served on many of the same committees and worked on many of the same issues over their careers in both the House and Senate." He said Shelby did not "help organize her fundraiser in Huntsville."

The Alabama senator did not attend the Oct. 26 event. But Mikulski joined Shelby and his wife, Annette, for a drink in Huntsville the night before, a Mikulski aide confirmed.

Participants described the fundraiser as bipartisan, which is not unusual when aerospace and defense interests are involved. Donors from industries that depend on government contracts often give to lawmakers of both major parties, particularly those like Mikulski and Shelby, who sit on the Appropriations Committee.

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