One week ago today, budget sequestration formally went into effect, cutting NASA’s budget by five percent from its 2012 levels. Earlier this week, the House passed a continuing resolution (CR) that would fund NASA and other government agencies at fiscal year 2012 levels, with a few adjustments for programs like the Space Launch System and commercial crew. However, at officials with NASA’s single largest budget account, science, are still trying to figure out what these developments mean for the programs they’re trying to fund.
“Let me start with everything I know about the fiscal year ’13 budget,” said John Grunsfeld in a presentation Wednesday morning at the National Research Council’s Space Science Week, a joint meeting of several advisory groups in the astronomical, planerary, space, and earth sciences held in Washington. He then proceeded to put up a (deliberately) blank slide, to laughter from the audience. “Moving on to FY14, I’m going to tell you everything I can tell you about the FY14 budget,” he then said, putting up another blank slide, reflecting the fact that the administration had yet to release its 2014 budget proposal.
Grunsfeld offered a few more details about sequestration, noting that the sequester cuts science funding by $51.1 million from the FY13 budget request, to $4.86 billion (on the assumption that the science account will be funded in 2013 at the same level as it was in 2012 through a CR, which is what the House CR passed this week does.) How those cuts will be implemented, though, is still being worked out within the agency. “This is still very much a work in progress. Nothing has been decided,” he said.
He did say that the cuts would try to protect ongoing missions, as well as those in advanced stages of development. That’s reflected in the NASA letter to Congress last month, which identified delays to proposed new smaller missions in the Explorer and Earth Venture classes, as well as cuts in research and analysis (R&A) funding, as likely ways to implement the sequestration reductions.
“They were not singled out,” Grunsfeld said of the smaller missions when asked by a committee member. Those missions were mentioned, he said, because the agency concluded that delaying the start of new missions was a less disruptive way of implementing the cuts, and those programs happened to have selections for new missions upcoming. “That’s really the only place where we have a degree of freedom.”
In a meeting Thursday of the Committee on Astronomy and Astrophysics, Paul Hertz, director of NASA’s astrophysics division, reiterated that uncertainty. “I don’t know what this year’s budget is. I don’t know what next year’s budget is,” he said. Budget sequestration, he said, may affect the spending profile in 2013 for the next Explorer-class missions the agency is considering: two exoplanet missions, TESS and FINESSE, as well as two smaller “missions of opportunity” to place experiments on high-altitude balloons or the International Space Station. Sequestration won’t likely affect the timing of the mission selections, currently planned for this spring, Hertz said, but may affect how much money they get this fiscal year. “It might be a delayed funding profile” for the selected missions, he said.
The head of NASA’s planetary science division is also trying to figure out what impacts sequestration will have on his programs. Jim Green said at a meeting of the Committee on Astrobiology and Planetary Science Thursday that while R&A funding had been singled out in NASA’s congressional letter as a source of sequestration cuts, he would attempt to protect that funding. “Given the opportunity to make a choice, I will not take any funding away from the R&A program for the sequester. We’ll work out a different arrangement,” he said. He cautioned, though, that he “may be given direction” from higher up in the agency to make cuts in R&A programs.
While the overall science directorate at NASA is funded at 2012 levels under the CR, Green said he is the planetary program as spending at the rate specified by the FY13 budget proposal, which cut the planetary program by 20 percent. That is likely to continue if NASA is funded by a CR for all of 2013; the House CR passed this week makes no changes to the science account.
However, Green held out hope that Congress might pass an alternative appropriations bill for 2013 that could restore some funding for planetary. If that happens, he said, he would consider using that money to make early payments on launch vehicles for upcoming selected missions, including the OSIRIS-REx asteroid sample return spacecraft and InSight Mars lander, both slated for launch in 2016. “Investments in the rockets allow us to free up wedges that we’ve already planned in later fiscal years,” he said, that could be used for other programs. He said that could allow them to move up the call for the next Discovery-class mission from 2015 to 2014, addressing a concern about the slow tempo of those smaller planetary missions in the agency’s current plans.