If budget sequestration goes into effect next month, NASA plans to enact a series of spending reductions that would effectively bring the agency’s commercial crew program to a halt by the summer, and delay or cancel some science and technology missions, according to a letter released by a Senate committee today.
The letter from NASA administrator Charles Bolden to Senate Appropriations Committee chairwoman Barbara Mikulski, dated February 5, was one of many from various federal agencies that Mikulski’s committee released today as part of a hearing on the effects budget sequestration would have on the government should the automatic across-the-board cuts go into effect as currently planned on March 1.
Bolden, in the letter, said that the agency assumed that the current continuing resolution (CR), which funds the government at FY 2012 levels until March 27, would be extended through the rest of the fiscal year, and that the sequester would cut five percent from that level, or about nine percent from the remaining part of the fiscal year. That works out to a full-year budget of $16.985 billion, or $894 million below the CR level (and $726.7 million below the administration’s FY2013 budget request.) By comparison, NASA was looking at a larger cut of $1.46 billion under the original sequestration plans released in September.
Those cuts will not be distributed evenly across NASA’s various programs. Exploration would see a cut of $332.2 million from the FY13 request. Commercial crew would bear the brunt of that cut. “After sequestration, NASA would not be able to fund milestones planned to be allocated in the fourth quarter of FY 2013 for Commercial Crew Integrated Capability (CCiCap),” the letter states, including a number of reviews scheduled for Boeing, Sierra Nevada Corporation, and SpaceX. “Overall availability of commercial crew transportation services would be significantly delayed, thereby extending our reliance on foreign providers for crew transportation to the International Space Station.”
NASA would also cut $45 million from its exploration R&D efforts, delaying or canceling several research programs in this area. NASA’s Space Launch System (SLS) rocket and Orion crew exploration vehicle would not be directly affected by the cuts.
Elsewhere, NASA would cut $251.7 million from the proposed $619.2 million for its construction account, affecting a number of agency construction projects, including ground facilities needed for SLS and Orion. NASA would cut $149.4 million from the requested $699 million for its space technology program, with potential effects ranging from several planned technology demonstration programs to a reduction in parabolic or suborbital flights in its Flight Opportunities program.
Science would get a $51.1 million cut from its requested $4.91 billion. That would result in potential delays or lower funding levels for new Explorer and Earth Venture class missions, and a reduction in funding of about 2% for research and analysis grants. Major ongoing programs, like NASA Mars exploration efforts and the James Webb Space Telescope, would not be affected by the cuts. Paul Hertz, head of NASA’s astrophysics division, said during a NASA Advisory Committee astrophysics subcommittee telecon Thusday afternoon that he hasn’t seen the letter outlining the agency’s plans, but suggested one approach would be to delay the start of the next Explorer-class mission, slated to be announced this spring, until the beginning of fiscal year 2014.
The letter doesn’t identify any cuts to NASA’s space operations, education, or cross-agency support programs, suggesting that they would not participate in the cuts. In fact, the total cuts (relative to FY13) included in the letter, including the $7.3 million for aeronautics and $0.4 million for the office of the inspector general, sum to $792.1 million, more than the $726.7 million figure cited in the letter. The cause of that difference isn’t immediately clear.