One word has been on the lips of official Washington the last two weeks, and also inhabiting its nightmares: sequestration. It’s the official term for the automatic budget cuts scheduled to be triggered in fiscal year 2013 after the failure of the “supercommittee” last month to come up with its own deficit reduction plan. One of the few people in Washington who doesn’t appear to be openly worried about sequestration, though, is NASA administrator Charles Bolden.
“I don’t talk about sequestration because I don’t think it’s going to happen,” Bolden said in response to a question about any NASA planning for sequestration during a Space Transportation Association luncheon on Capitol Hill Monday. He said he’s optimistic that Congress will find a solution in the coming months that will prevent the automatic cuts from going into effect. “We are not planning for sequestration. We are not budgeting for sequestration. We are in the normal budget process” of working with the administration on the agency’s FY13 budget request, he said.
Bolden said his focus was instead executing on the FY12 budget, which was enacted last month. He called getting that budget passed “a huge deal” in a positive way. “The proposal and the disposition ended up being pretty doggone close,” he said, referring to how the final budget was close to the administration’s original budget request. “So we’re happy.”
One discrepancy between the original proposal and the final budget was in the agency’s commercial crew program, for which the administration requested $850 million but received only $406 million. “We’re going to continue to look at the commercial crew program to find out the most effective and efficient way we can bring it into being,” he said when asked about any potential changes in the program given the reduced funding. “We’re going to continue to work on that.” He did not disclose any specifics about potential changes, including whether NASA will proceed as previously planned with an RFP for the Integrated Design Phase, the next phase of the program.
Bolden did emphasize the importance of commercial crew during his talk. “We’re committed to having American companies, with sufficient oversight to ensure human safety, send our astronauts and cargo to the International Space Station, rather than continuing to outsource this work to foreign governments,” he said. “I’m trying to be very, very, very, clear, and it’s important for me to say that in these halls.” He noted it costs NASA $450 million a year to buy Soyuz seats, a figure he said would likely increase in the future. “So we can either choose to either continue to pay that, or we can foster what we know can be a successful industry here in the United States.”
On another topic, Bolden confirmed it remains NASA’s long-term plan to send astronauts to Mars first on an orbital mission and then, at some later date, perform a human landing on the Red Planet, a slower rate than what one member of Congress suggested in a press release last week. “Ideally you would want to land them in the decade that you orbited,” he said, declining to provide a specific schedule given the uncertainties involved in planning such a mission at this time. “The big challenge right now for us is developing the technologies, the capabilities we now know we don’t have” but are needed for such a mission.