Earlier this month NASA administrator Charles Bolden expressed optimism that “sequestration”, the term given to the across-the-bord budget cuts currently in place for fiscal year 2013 after the failure of the supercommittee to come up with a long-term deficit reduction plan, could be avoided by Congressional action in the coming year. “I don’t think it’s going to happen,” he told an audience in early December, saying the agency was not making any special preparations for it as part of its FY13 budget planning.
A former occupant of Bolden’s current office is similarly optimistic that sequestration will be avoided. “There is no question that this atmosphere is very, very tough. The budget environment is going to be challenging,” said Sean O’Keefe at a Washington Space Business Roundtable luncheon last week. Despite that environment, he said that the automatic across-the-board cuts required by the sequestration process is enough to get Congress and the administration to act to craft an alternative that will prioritize cuts. “The spectre of sequestration is so onerous that the notion behind it is that it will force everybody to act to avoid something mindless, driven by a computer formula,” he said.
He said that he was not surprised that the supercommittee failed to come up with its own plan, calling that diverse collection of members the “let’s give peace a chance” move that predictably failed. He expects that in the coming year both Congress and the Administration will work to find an alternative, not wanting to appear to have failed in cutting spending during an election year as well as risk more downgrades from ratings agencies. “The chances of coming to an alternative to sequestration, I think, is high.”
O’Keefe, who served as NASA administrator from the end of 2001 to early 2005 and is now CEO of EADS North America, touched upon a wide range of topics, many not related to NASA or space policy, in his talk. In one passage, he endorsed the idea of turning over routine transportation to low Earth orbit of cargo and crews to the private sector. “The logic behind all this that I found compelling,” he said, “is that NASA is an extraordinary place… that is designed for the purpose of doing things that haven’t been done before.” Repetitive flight activities is something that may be better suited to the private sector, he suggested.
That activity, designed to support continued operations of the ISS, is important because the station is “exactly one invention, discovery, something away from being the next wonder of the world,” he said. “When that happens, it will be exactly like Hubble,” he said, referring to the space telescope that became beloved by the public after corrected optics allowed it to return stunning images and perform cutting-edge science. “Just one breakthrough, and we’re going to see this station in a completely different way,” rather than questioning the expense of building and maintaining it.