NASA will continue to be funded at the fiscal 2013 level (roughly $1.4 billion per month) at least through December. NASA illustration
WASHINGTON (Gannett Washington Bureau) - NASA was able to largely avoid serious consequences from the first phase of sequestration budget cuts, but the next round poses a threat to the nation's space program, according to congressional lawmakers and agency officials.
Those cuts could delay missions and imperil programs that already face tighter budgets and fiscal uncertainty.
"Sequestration will slit the throat of NASA," said Florida Democratic Sen. Bill Nelson, one of Congress' biggest champions for NASA. "It'll cut the heart out of the manned space program."
Fiscal 2014 began Oct. 1, but lawmakers remain far apart on how much discretionary spending to approve this year for NASA and other federal agencies. Most mandatory spending for entitlement programs is unaffected by sequestration.
NASA received nearly $16.9 billion in fiscal 2013. The House Appropriations Committee has approved $16.6 billion in fiscal 2014 while a bill approved by the Senate Appropriations Committee calls for $18 billion. President Barack Obama has requested $17.7 billion.
The space agency will continue to be funded at the fiscal 2013 level (roughly $1.4 billion per month) at least through December while House and Senate negotiators work out a longer deal. Central to those discussions is whether to continue sequestration.
Pointing to the nation's nearly $17 trillion debt, a number of Republicans say they want to continue sequestration while easing its impact on defense spending.
"The fact is, it's the first time since 1955 and 1956 we've had two years in a row of less government spending," Tennessee GOP Sen. Bob Corker said recently.
Democrats, including Nelson, adamantly oppose the sequestration cuts, saying they've helped stymie economic growth.
Earlier this year, top NASA officials warned that another year of sequestration would be bad news for an agency that budgets for the long term and needs consistent funding sources for its multi-year missions.
William Gerstenmaier, associate administrator for human exploration, told senators that large-scale missions to retrieve an asteroid and send astronauts to Mars will be delayed if sequestration continues.
"We can tolerate the (fiscal) 2013 sequester because we're prepared," he told congressional lawmakers in April. "But if it continues into '14, the programs and timetables I described, I don't believe we can continue to support it. This is really going to be tough for us moving forward."
John Grunsfeld, associate administrator for the Science Mission Directorate, told a House panel in May the cuts have delayed plans for an "all-sky survey" to look for nearby planets outside the solar system, and that other planet discovery missions also would be hampered.
NASA spokesman Allard Beutel said Thursday the agency was still assessing the impact of another year of sequestration and its "stifling constraints." Even holding at fiscal 2013 levels would be problematic because it's about $850 million less than the president's request.
That would mean deep cuts in space technology, "the seed corn that allows the nation to conduct ever more capable and affordable space missions," Beutel said. It also would impede NASA's Commercial Crew Program to use private companies to carry astronauts to the ISS by 2017.
Since retirement of the space shuttle program, U.S. taxpayers have paid Russia to carry astronauts to the space station, at a cost to taxpayers of more than $70 million a trip.
Nelson said sequestration could have local impact.
Boeing announced last week it plans to move into a former shuttle hangar at Kennedy Space Center in the spring of 2014, where it will assemble CST-100 commercial crew capsules. One of three companies competing to transport NASA crews to the International Space Station, Boeing hopes to launch a first test flight of the CST-100 in 2016.
But Nelson said budget cuts could complicate Boeing's efforts.
"They're not going to do that if they don't have the money from NASA to do all the redundancies and all of the escape systems in order to make it safe for humans," he said.
And it's not just Kennedy that could suffer.
Nelson said further delays in the manned missions also will hurt Marshall Space Flight Center in Alabama, where rockets are developed, Stennis Space Center in Mississippi, where they're tested, and Johnson Space Center in Texas, home of Mission Control.
Another year of sequestration also will stunt research programs at Dryden Flight Research Center in California, Langley Research Center in Virginia, and Glenn Research Center in Ohio, Nelson said. He confirmed he's talked to NASA Administrator Charles F. Bolden Jr. about the issue.
"It will affect every center. It will also put the kibosh on (NASA's) aviation research," he said. "Sequestration is across the board. It hits everybody. That's why we need to get rid of it."