The good news for NASA and other federal agencies is that they finally have a fiscal year 2013 budget. On Thursday, the House passed the Senate’s version of a 2013 spending bill as expected, a day after the Senate approved it. The passage ends any worries about a potential government shutdown when the current continuing resolution (CR) that was funding the government expired next week. Moreover, the bill is not just a CR, providing specific appropriations (and guidance) for much of the government, including NASA.
The bad news, though, is that the appropriations bill does nothing about budget sequestration that went into effect at the beginning of this month. That 5% cut, along with the 1.877% rescission that was included in the appropriations bill passed this week, means that while NASA on paper gets $17.862 billion for FY13, after those cuts it will only have $16.65 billion to spend, a cut of more than $1.2 billion.
NASA has already been working to factor in the effects of sequestration into its activities. The latest blow came late Friday with a pair of memos from NASA regarding the agency’s education and public outreach activities. “Effective immediately, all education and public outreach activities should be suspended, pending further review,” stated the first memo, first published by SpaceRef. (The second memo, also published by SpaceRef, exempts “mission announcement media events and products” and other news activities from the suspension.) The memos don’t indicate how long the suspensions will last, but NASA mission directorates and other organizations face a deadline of April 15 to submit a list of those activities planned for May 1 and beyond that they deem “mission critical.”
Some people interpreted the memos as NASA canceling its education and public outreach activities, although a spokesman confirmed to NBCNews.com that this is a suspension, not a cancellation. More guidance on activities that will be exempt from the suspension is expected next week.
These memos come after NASA issued a memo last week putting limits on agency travel, including participation in conferences. The memo came just days before a major planetary science conference, the Lunar and Planetary Science Conference in Houston, causing some last-minute cancellations in participation in the event. The memo also singled out the National Space Symposium in Colorado next month, and the Goddard Memorial Symposium and Dinner earlier this week in the Washington, DC area, as events specifically excluded from travel.
The decision didn’t sit well with the Space Foundation, the organization that runs the National Space Symposium. “The Space Symposium is the largest annual gathering of the global space community anywhere in the world, and meets your criteria more strongly than any other event,” Space Foundation president Elliot Pulham wrote to NASA administrator Charles Bolden, as reported by AOL Defense. “If the Space Symposium does not meet your criteria, then neither does any other conference in the world.”
Bolden, though, did speak at the Goddard Memorial Symposium, saying that the event was local to him. “We kept getting calls from people saying, ‘Hey, I’m supposed to go to this, and I’m supposed to go to that, and can I go?’” Bolden said at the conference Wednesday, explaining why that conference and the National Space Symposium were “singled out” in the memo. “Finally, I said, ‘Look, I’m not going to NSS. I’m going to go to the Goddard Symposium because it’s in town and it doesn’t cost the government a dime. I suggest you follow my example.’”
Bolden said, though, that the situation could be worse for NASA under sequestration: there are no plans to furlough any civil servants at the agency because the various agency directorates have been operating at a reduced funding level so far this fiscal year, anticipating sequestration or other cuts to come. Other agencies now planning furloughs, he said, spent at faster rates, thinking that that the situation would improve. “We just didn’t think things were going to get better.”