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Sequestration and Budget Cuts Affect NASA
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Specifics are beginning to trickle out on how NASA plans to handle sequestration and budget cuts.

Overview of the Sequester

On March 1, the Sequester was put into action, resulting in automatic across the board spending cuts. In doing so, NASA’s funding took a 5% hit. In a February 5  letter to the Senate Appropriations Committee, NASA Administrator Charles Bolden wrote about how the agency would apply the budget cuts.

  • $51.1 million sequester in science activities
  • $7.3 million sequester in aeronautics
  • $149.4 million sequester in space technology research and development
  • $332.2 million sequester in manned space exploration
  • $251.7 million sequester in new facility construction and environmental cleanup of old facilities
  • $0.4  million sequester to the Office of the Inspector General

I’ll go through what these cuts mean for NASA.

Science Activities ($51.1 million)

The science activity budget covers mission development, operation, and data analysis. Bolden’s plan calls for cuts between 10 and 15% to Explorer and Earth Venture-class missions. These missions are small to medium-sized Earth and space observatories on short development cycles. The cuts eliminate some missions while slowing the development of others.

Funding will be cut by 2% to future completed research, which translates to a 5% reduction in grants and awards to carry out analysis of data generated by NASA programs. This part of the budget supports university faculty, aerospace companies, and research organizations.

Aeronautics ($7.3 million)

Aeronautics is one aspect of NASA that sort of falls outside of the public conscious, but is still a fairly important area of focus for the agency. Cuts to NASA’s aeronautics program affect research into new air traffic control systems through the Joint Planning and Development Office.  Other projects that get budget cuts are airframe and air safety research and experimental tilt-rotor aircraft intended for civilian use. NASA will also lose funding for R&D test facilities through which it runs partnerships with universities and private enterprises.

Space Technology and Research ($149.4 million)

The cuts in this area have serious impacts on NASA’s future. Many of these programs are designed to increase mission efficiency and lower operational costs. Affected by the cuts are:

 

Manned Space Exploration ($332.2 million)

This area of NASA’s budget concerns the Space Launch System, commercial space development, and biomedical research. The sequester cuts $332.2 million from NASA’s requested budget, and is $487.1 million less than 2012’s budget.

The biggest loser here is commercial space development, which loses $441.6 million from 2012’s budget. Funding shortfalls caused by the sequester would occur by the 4th quarter of this year, and would affect the funding for milestones in this area. Affected by the shortfall are an in-flight abort test by SpaceX next April, a test of Boeing’s Orbital Maneuvering and Attitude Control Engine, and the second safety review of Sierra Nevada Corporation’s Dream Chaser orbiter. These cuts would delay NASA’s attempts to commercially resupply the ISS. Should this happen, ISS resupply would have to be contracted out to Russia, ESA, or JAXA.

$45.5 million of the cuts in this area will be applied to the development of advanced exploration systems. This part of NASA is focuses on discovering and working through issues of long-term space habitation, which is a necessary step before any manned deep space mission can occur. The program most heavily affected will be the Human Research Program, which in turn causes cuts to the National Space Biomedical Research Institute and NASA Space Radiation Laboratory.

Construction ($251.7 million)

Included in this area of the budget is construction and upgrades at new and existing launch facilities, repair of deteriorating infrastructure, and environmental cleanup at current and former NASA facilities. The biggest cuts apply to the construction of infrastructure for the Space Launch System, the Orion Crew Vehicle, commercial launch complexes, and spaceflight tracking.

Also cancelled by the sequestrations are projects to repair and refurbish failing infrastructure at Glenn Research Center, Goddard Space Flight Center, JPL, Johnson Space Center, Kennedy Space Center, Langley Research Center, and Marshall Space Flight Center.

One final hit that may cost NASA even more than just the sequester is bringing environmentally challenged test areas back into compliance with regulations. Areas at the Kennedy Space Center, White Sands Test Facility, and Santa Susana Field Lab need renegotiation of previously agreed-to compliance dates, and NASA faces potential fines should the negotiations not occur.

Office of the Inspector General ($0.4 million)

While not a huge impact as compared to other areas taking a hit, the Office of the Inspector General handles NASA hiring, program audits, and accident investigations.

 

House of Representatives Budget Alterations

On March 6, the House of Representatives passed a bill (by a 267-151 vote) that alters how NASA programs are funded. Casey Drier at The Planetary Society has a nice write-up of the budget, but to summarize, 2013 funding is kept at the same levels as 2012. However, that funding is moved around in the agency, resulting in a zero-sum game. Some projects win, and others lose out. The House budget focuses heavily on manned spaceflight at the cost of science operations.

The biggest beneficiaries of the bill are the Space Launch System and Commercial Spaceflight Development initiatives, which get budget increases of 14% and 29% respectively. This money is drawn mainly out of the Space Operations and Cross-Agency support budgets, which both take 5% cuts from last year’s level of funding. These cuts appear to apply most directly to unmanned space exploration, meaning that both developing and currently operational missions could be on the chopping block in the future.

However, the bill must be passed in the Senate to take effect, and political divides between the two chambers may result in a different funding scheme for NASA. The Senate will probably create its own version of the bill, which will need to be reconciled before any significant changes to NASA’s budget occur.

 

Current Operations

Still developing is how budget cuts would apply to NASA’s exploration program. So far it seems no major decisions on planning have been made, but HiRise’s imaging team was very talkative about the subject today on Twitter. Among some of the tidbits shared with their followers:

 

 

The worst news seems to apply to Cassini, which arrived at Saturn in 2004 and is currently on its second mission extension, which lasts until 2017. Current plans are for Cassini to be deorbited at the end of the current mission extension after a series of close flybys of Titan, Enceladus, and just underneath Saturn’s D-ring. I going to speculate that end date may be moved up in time a little if funding for the mission truly dries up, though.

Science teams are probably just now receiving word on the future status of their projects, and I’ll keep you updated as the situation progresses.

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About The Author
Justin Cowart
Justin Cowart is a geologist interested in Earth and Solar System history. As a geologist, he spends hist time looking at the ground, but in his free time he looks to the skies as an amateur astronomer.

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