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

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.

At her Huntsville breakfast, the Maryland senator spoke at length about the future of the human space program, according to attendees.

"She said that if she were to support a change in course, she would have to have more information than she had at the time to support a dramatic shift," said Hendrick, who gave $1,000 and chatted briefly with the senator that morning.

"I simply thanked her for her continued support for the agency and the program, and Constellation and science in general," he said. Last month, Hendrick was named by Huntsville's mayor to the local task force of business and political leaders that hopes to persuade Congress to reject Obama's plan.

The Huntsville metro area ranks fourth, after Baltimore, Washington and New York, as a source of contributions for Mikulski's re-election campaign, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, which tracks money in politics. Overall, Alabamians have given more money to Mikulski's 2010 campaign than residents of any state except Maryland, according to the Center.

Mikulski says that her positions on the space program, like other issues, are decided on the merits and are not influenced by campaign contributions.

"As I review NASA's plans for human space flight, I will evaluate them the way I do all decisions about NASA funding - with carefully thought through principles," she said in a statement.

According to FEC records, more than three-quarters of the Alabamians who gave to Mikulski's 2010 re-election last fall have also given to Shelby and include some of his biggest donors.

Like Mikulski, Shelby, 75, is renowned for delivering federal money to constituents. As the senior Republican on Mikulski's committee, he works to protect the NASA center in Huntsville the way Mikulski uses her clout on behalf of the Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, which is in line for a budget increase under Obama's plan.

Though he began his career as a Democrat, switching parties in 1994, Shelby has come under attack for what Democrats portray as extreme partisanship. He tied up the Senate to highlight his concern over parochial interests - funding for an Air Force jet contract and a counterterrorism center in his home state - by single-handedly blocking confirmation of more than 70 Obama nominees.

His work with Mikulski represents a very different dynamic, one that seldom makes the news: a nonpartisan devotion to spending federal dollars.

In recent years, Mikulski and Shelby joined forces to increase federal law enforcement funds by more than $100 million and tried unsuccessfully to restore $1 billion to NASA's budget that Republican President George W. Bush cut. This year, they could be taking on Democrat Obama.

From the Alabama space community, Mikulski received $14,400 from Francisco J. Collazo of COLSA Corp., a contractor on NASA's moon rocket program, and five members of his family, FEC records show. Collazo has also contributed more than $400,000 to Shelby campaigns and committees over the years, Bloomberg News reported in a 2006 article that said Shelby had steered at least $50 million in government earmarks to COLSA.

Four members of the 25-member Huntsville task force personally directed $7,300 in contributions to Mikulski's re-election. Three others work for aerospace contractors that have given $14,000 through their political action committees, records show.

The Huntsville group is headed by Cramer, a Democrat who represented the city in Congress for 18 years before retiring in 2008. Cramer, now chairman of a Washington lobbying firm, donated $4,000 in leftover campaign funds to Mikulski, whose ability to stockpile campaign cash has helped keep her in Congress for 34 years (though her $2.1 million bankroll at the start of 2010 was the smallest of the 13 Democratic senators running this year).

Of the $1.5 million that Mikulski collected in 2009, according to FEC records, at least $88,610 came from Huntsville-area donors in the last four months of the year. Most, if not all, who gave owned or were employed by NASA contractors or relied on the space agency for business.

Present and former aides say that Mikulski has regularly visited NASA centers across the country and raised money in the past at two of those cities in addition to Huntsville.

The fundraiser in Huntsville was at least her third there since first taking over as chairman of the committee that controls NASA's budget in 1989. The others were in 1991, the year before her 1992 campaign, and in 1997, before her 1998 re-election.

Her latest Dixie haul was considerably larger, however. Almost twice as much Alabama money flowed into her campaign in the final months of 2009 than in the previous 18 years combined, according to Center for Responsive Politics and FEC data.

The mutually advantageous working relationship between Mikulski and Shelby appears to have deepened over the past five years, when they've held the top posts on their appropriations subcommittee.

"They kind of watch each other's backs," said Walker, who served with both in the House in the1970s and 1980s.

As a favor to Shelby, Mikulski has taken the time to address northern Alabama Chamber of Commerce representatives on their annual pilgrimages to Washington.

The Huntsville Times reported in April 2007, that "she excited the crowd with her booming voice. 'We are going to fight so hard to keep the lunar program in the federal budget,' she said."

Amid conflicting news reports about whether NASA officials might be trying to devise an alternative to killing the moon rocket, Shelby met with the agency's top administrator late last week. The senator, who has called Obama's plan the start of a "death march" for the U.S. manned space program, warned him that the administration is out of step with Congress.

Mikulski, in a written statement of principles last month, said the human space program "needs a destination." But she was silent on where she thinks U.S. astronauts should go or how they should get there. She ended with some questions of her own for the Obama administration.

"Is the intention to scrap everything and start over?" she asked. "If so, what is the plan to mitigate job dislocation?"

Mikulski said she intends to seek answers when her committee holds a public hearing on NASA's budget this month.