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The Day After -- What's Next For NASA After the Supercommittee Failure?

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 22-Nov-2011 (Updated: 06-Dec-2011 04:24 PM)

As politicians from both parties blame each other for the collapse of the supercommittee deliberations yesterday, most people are wondering what comes next.

No easy answers are apparent.

By law - the Budget Control Act of 2011 to be specific - the failure of the supercommittee triggers automatic across-the-board spending cuts beginning in 2013, half from "defense" and half from "non-defense" discretionary spending.  The non-defense spending reduction includes up to a 2 percent cut in Medicare payments to providers; Social Security and Medicaid are exempt from cuts.  The remainder of the amount to be cut from non-defense spending would come from agencies like NASA, EPA, the Departments of Interior, Labor, Commerce (including NOAA), Education and so forth.

Of the $1.2 trillion sought, $216 billion is estimated to come from interest savings (since the debt will be lower, the government can pay less interest on that debt).  That leaves about $1 trillion to come from spending cuts: $500 billion from defense and $500 billion from non-defense.  The cuts are spread over 10 years (FY2013-2021).

What "defense" means in this context is being debated.  Some argue the Budget Control Act makes clear it means only the Pentagon, but others insist that other national security spending is included.  However it is defined, considerable attention is being focused on undoing those automatic cuts.  So far no one appears to be objecting to the automatic cuts to non-defense spending.

It is impossible to determine at this stage what such cuts would mean to particular agencies or programs, but New Scientist, citing an expert from AAAS, estimates it at about 8 percent.  The cut would be applied "across-the-board," meaning that each activity would be cut by the same amount.  This "meat-axe" approach, compared to a "scalpel" where cuts could be made based on merit or other determinants, is part of what has everyone up in arms.   This draconian penalty for supercommittee failure was deliberately included in the Act as an incentive for them to reach agreement.   It obviously did not work.   President Obama has stated that he will veto any attempt to change the automatic cuts.

The automatic cuts will not take place until January 2013, presumably after Congress has acted on the President's FY2013 budget request that will be submitted in February 2012.  The cuts are for FY2013 through FY2021 and complicated formulas are applied that make the entire situation quite confusing.

Kicking the deficit reduction can down the road into the maelstrom of an election year, as congressional Democrats and Republicans now have done, is an interesting choice.  Politicians have spent the last day not only pointing fingers, but offering their assessments of which party is now in a better bargaining position.

Gauging the potential impact on federally funded science and technology programs in general, or the space program in particular, is a fool's errand at this point other than recognizing the obvious - budgets will be even more constrained.   How the Administration crafts the FY2013 budget request and how Congress acts on it will be critical since the cuts will apply to the amounts in the FY2013 appropriations bills.  Determining priorities clearly will be a key factor.

In an exchange during a Senate hearing last week, NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden and Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-TX) revealed that at a September meeting between Senators Hutchison and Bill Nelson (D-FL), Bolden, and Office of Management and Budget Director Jacob Lew, agreement was reached that NASA's top three priorities are the Space Launch System and the Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle, enhancements to the International Space Station including commercial crew, and the James Webb Space Telescope.  In an across-the board cut situation, each of those would be cut by the same amount, along with each other NASA activity.  Whether the Administration and Congress craft the budget to protect those priorities at the expense of other NASA activities may become apparent in February when the budget is submitted to Congress.

Although NASA is one of the lucky agencies whose FY2012 budgets has been enacted, the long-term stability of that budget is just as ambiguous as ever.  The only certainty seems to be that NASA's budget woes are far from over.

UPDATE: ISS Crew is Home

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 21-Nov-2011 (Updated: 06-Dec-2011 04:21 PM)

UPDATE:  Three International Space Station (ISS) crew members returned to terra firma in Kazakhstan at 9:26 pm EST (8:26 am local time November 22 in Kazakhstan).

NASA astronaut Mike Fossum, Russian cosmonaut Sergei Volkov and Japanese astronaut Satoshi Furukawa were launched on June 7 and docked with the ISS on June 9.

Wind chill at the landing site is minus 20 Fahrenheit for this pre-dawn landing (local time in Kazakhstan).

UPDATE: There They Go -- Soyuz TMA-02M Undocks

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 21-Nov-2011 (Updated: 06-Dec-2011 04:20 PM)

The Soyuz TMA-02M spacecraft has successfully undocked from the International Space Station.

Landing will take place at 9:25 pm EST, or 8:25 am tomorrow (November 22) local time at the landing site near Arkalyk, Kazakhstan.  That is 33 minutes before sunrise there and NASA TV says the temperature will be in the single digits Fahrenheit.  Brrrrrr.

Supercommittee Throws in the Towel

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 21-Nov-2011 (Updated: 06-Dec-2011 04:19 PM)

The congressional "supercommittee" tasked with reducing the deficit by $1.2 trillion over 10 years made it official this afternoon - they failed.

In a joint statement, the co-chairs of the supercommittee said:  "After months of hard work and intense deliberations, we have come to the conclusion today that it will not be possible to make any bipartisan agreement available to the public before the committee's deadline."  Sen. Patty Murray (D-WA) and Rep. Jeb Hensarling (R-TX) are the co-chairs.

The deadline set by the Budget Control Act of 2011 is November 23, but the supercommittee was supposed to make its recommendations available to the public -- and their fellow members of Congress -- two days in advance, which is today.

What happens next is murky.  Under the Act, the supercommittee's failure triggers automatic spending cuts totalling $1.2 trillion beginning in 2013.  Half are supposed to come from "defense" discretionary funding and the other half from non-defense discretionary funding and Medicare reforms.  The Medicare reforms are limited to 2 percent.  Social Security and Medicaid are exempt.   The definition of "defense" -- whether that means the Department of Defense (DOD) or a broader category of spending that might include the Department of Homeland Security, for example -- is open to debate.

It is not only the amount of the cuts, but the fact that they would be applied across-the-board without factoring in the merits of particular programs or activities that is troublesome.  Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta has been warningsince he took office this summer about the cataclysmic impact of across-the-board cuts of that size and nature on the military.

Panetta's allies in Congress agree.   Rep. Buck McKeon (R-CA), chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, is planning to introduce legislation to undo the cuts -- officially called "sequestration."    In a statement, he asserted:  "I will be introducing legislation in the coming days to prevent cuts that will do catastrophic damage to our men and women in uniform and our national security. Our military has already contributed nearly half a trillion to deficit reduction. Those who have given us so much, have nothing more to give. Secretary Panetta has said he doesn't want to be the Secretary who hollows out defense. Likewise, I will not be the armed services chairman who presides over crippling our military. I will not let these sequestration cuts stand."

While many are focused on the half of the cuts that would come from "defense" -- whatever it means -- the cuts to the rest of government spending could be equally catastrophic.   Of the $1.2 trillion in savings, $216 billion would be saved by not having to pay interest on that much debt.  According to a Congressional Research Service report, the bottom line is that the annual amount that must be cut from discretionary spending is $109.3 billion, of which half -- $54.7 billion -- would come from non-defense discretionary spending like NASA and NOAA.

What that level of cuts would mean to NASA's human spaceflight, science and aeronautics programs, and NOAA's satellite programs is worrying.   Prioritization within the Administration and Congress will be key, and space advocates undoubtedly hope that programs that promote high-tech jobs and U.S. preeminence in science and technology will be at the top of the list, but in today's climate, determining who wins and who loses is an unenviable task.

ISS Crew Waiting for Undocking and Return Home

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 21-Nov-2011 (Updated: 06-Dec-2011 04:17 PM)

The hatches closed between the International Space Station (ISS) and Soyuz TMA-02M at 2:41 pm EST today, and three ISS crew members now are awaiting undocking at 6:00 pm EST and landing in Kazakhstan at 9:25 pm EST tonight.

NASA astronaut Mike Fossum, Russian cosmonaut Sergei Volkov and Japanese astronaut Satoshi Furukawa have been aboard the ISS since June 9.  They have spent the last several days handing over operations to the Soyuz TMA-22 crew that docked with the ISS early Wednesday morning EST.  Those three crew members -- Dan Burbank, Anatoly Ivinishin, and Anton Shkaplerov -- will be joined by three more astronauts just before Christmas, once again returning the ISS crew to full strength. Ordinarily, six crew are aboard the ISS at one time, but the crew rotation schedule was disrupted by a Russian launch failure in August.

NASA TV is providing live coverage of the undocking and landing.

Is it the End for the Supercommittee?

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 20-Nov-2011 (Updated: 06-Dec-2011 04:14 PM)

They still have three days left -- and rabbits have been pulled out of hats in less time than that -- but members of the congressional supercommittee sounded pessimistic today.

A number of news roundups of the Sunday talk shows paint a discouraging picture of the supercommittee's deliberations as the November 23 deadline looms.   The 12 Members of Congress -- six Democrats and six Republicans, six from the House and six from the Senate -- are tasked by the Budget Control Act of 2011 to find a way to reduce the deficit by at least $1.2 trillion over 10 years.   The sides split on party lines on the question of using tax increases as part of the formula to whittle down the deficit -- the Democrats want them, the Republicans insist no.

The blame game was underway today on the talk shows, which either means that it's all over but the shouting, or this is a last ditch negotiating tactic.  The answer will be known soon.

If they do not reach agreement, or if they do but the rest of Congress and the President do not agree, an automatic cut of $1.2 trillion in spending will be triggered unless Congress changes the law -- with the President's agreement.   President Obama has indicated that he does not want to change the law, but advocates of defense spending are making it known that they will not stand by and watch it be cut by up to $600 billion, especially since the cuts are taken across-the-board without regard to the merit of particular programs or activities.   "Defense" is supposed to shoulder half the cuts, but there is debate as to whether that means just the Department of Defense, or other agencies involved in national security, such as the Department of Homeland Security.

NASA Delays Mars Probe Launch By One Day

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 20-Nov-2011 (Updated: 06-Dec-2011 04:11 PM)
NASA has delayed the launch of its next Mars probe by one day, to Saturday, November 26.

The delay is needed to replace a flight termination system battery according to NASA's website.  The probe, called the Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) or "Curiosity," now will be launched at 10:02 EST on November 26.   The launch window that day is open for 1 hour and 43 minutes.  Overall, the launch window to Mars is open until December 18.

UPDATE: Events of Interest: Week of November 21-26, 2011

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 19-Nov-2011 (Updated: 06-Dec-2011 04:10 PM)

UPDATE:  The launch of the Mars Science Laboratory (Curiosity) has been delayed from Friday to Saturday.

The following events may be of interest in the coming week.   For more information, check our calendar on the right menu or click the links below.  The House and Senate are in recess this week (though pro forma meetings are scheduled).

During the Week

HAPPY THANKSGIVING!!   While most of us are filled with thoughts of turkey and all the trimmings, there are a couple of events to note.

Congress is in recess. but the congressional supercommittee plans to meet through the weekend in the hope (however dwindling) of reaching agreement before the November 23 deadline legislated in the Budget Control Act of 2011 (P.L. 112-25).    The 12 members -- six Democrats and six Republicans, six from the House and six from the Senate -- are tasked with finding a way to reduce the deficit by at least $1.2 trillion over 10 years beginning in FY2013.   Eleventh-hour compromises are all too common in Washington to give up on them so many days in advance of their deadline, though many pundits are already talking about the consequences if they do not.   Under the Act, if the supercommittee fails to reach agreement, or if they do but Congress as a whole does not agree by December 23, automatic spending cuts will go into effect to achieve the $1.2 trillion reduction.  We will be keeping up on the supercommittee's progress, so check back here for news as it develops.

The Russians will continue to try and contact Phobos-Grunt, their Mars probe that remains stranded in Earth orbit.  Attempts so far have been unsuccessful.

Monday, November 21

Wednesday, November 23

  • Deadline for the congressional supercommittee to make recommendations on cutting the deficit by at least $1.2 trillion

Thursday, November 24

  • THANKSGIVING.      With thanks to all of you for reading our website!

Saturday, November 26

  • Scheduled launch of NASA's Mars Science Laboratory -- Curiosity, Cape Canaveral, FL, 10:02 am EST (watch on NASA TV)

Minibus Signed into Law

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 18-Nov-2011 (Updated: 05-Dec-2011 06:15 PM)

NASA, NOAA and the FAA are three of the lucky government agencies that now know their appropriations levels for FY2012. The minibus appropriations bill, H.R. 2112, was signed into law by the President today.

The minibus combines three of the 12 regular appropriations bills: Agriculture, Commerce-Justice-Science (CJS), and Transportation-Housing and Urban Development (T-HUD). Departments and agencies funded in the other nine bills, including DOD, still have to wait for Congress to determine their FY2012 funding levels. They are now funded through December 18 by a second Continuing Resolution (CR) that was included in H.R. 2112.

The supercommittee continues to struggle to come up with an agreement to cut the deficit by $1.2 trillion, but those changes would affect FY2013 and beyond. The political and national media are full of discouraging predictions about the likelihood of the supercommittee reaching agreement by its deadline of November 23, but the fat lady still hasn't sung. The 12 members of the supercommittee -- six Democrats and six Republicans, six from the House and six from the Senate -- plan to meet through the weekend.

UPDATE: Minibus Appropriations Passes House

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 17-Nov-2011 (Updated: 05-Dec-2011 06:18 PM)

UPDATE: The Senate Appropriations Committee just tweeted that the Senate is scheduled to pass this bill tonight between 7:00 and 7:30 pm, instead of tomorrow.


The "minibus" appropriations bill that includes NASA, NOAA, the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP), and the FAA's Office of Commercial Space Transportation (AST) passed the House this afternoon.

The vote was 298-121.

The bill, H.R. 2112, combines three FY2012 appropriations bills: Agriculture, Commerce-Justice-Science (CJS), and Transportation-Housing and Urban Development (T-HUD). NASA, NOAA and OSTP are in the CJS bill; FAA and its AST are in the T-HUD bill.

Information on funding levels for NASA that are contained in the bill are shown in our NASA FY2012 budget request Fact Sheet. Overall, the agency received $17.8 billion, $924 million below the President's request, but about $1 billion more than the House Appropriations Committee approved earlier this year.

NOAA received $924 million for its Joint Polar Satellite System compared to its request of $1.07 billion. The bill does not include funding for NOAA to reorganize internally and create a NOAA Climate Service as the administration requested. Overall, the bill provides NOAA with $4.9 billion, a cut of $582 million from the President's request, but $400 million more than the House Appropriations Committee approved.

OSTP received $4.5 million, instead of the $6.65 million requested, and the bill includes language prohibiting NASA or OSTP from engaging with China unless certain conditions are met. The House Appropriations Committee had approved cutting OSTP even more (to $3 million) to punish OSTP Director John Holdren for meeting with Chinese officials even though the FY2011 appropriations bill prohibited such meetings without congressional authorization.

FAA's AST received $16.3 million, just over half of the $26.6 million request, but $3.3 million more than the House Appropriations T-HUD subcommittee recommended.

The House never voted on the CJS or T-HUD bills. The CJS bill was reported from the House Appropriations Committee (H. Rept. 112-169), but theT-HUD bill did not get even that far. It was acted upon only at subcommittee level in the House. Nonetheless, the House and Senate agreed to negotiate over the final spending levels in the Senate-passed version of H.R. 2112, expediting the bill's route through Congress.

The Senate is expected to approve the bill tomorrow, which would give certainty to the agencies it covers as to their FY2012 funding levels. The rest of the government, however, would continue to be funded under a new Continuing Resolution (CR). The current CR expires tomorrow. The new CR is included in H.R. 2112 and funds the remaining government agencies, including DOD, through December 16, 2011.

The President is expected to sign the bill tomorrow as well, since the current CR expires at midnight Friday.

Events of Interest

Full calendar of future events (with filters)-click here »

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