Sequester Would Delay NOAA's GOES-R Series 2-3 Years, Cut NASA $727 Million from FY13 Request
The Senate Appropriations Committee has posted letters from many of the departments and agencies categorized as discretionary spending spelling out the impacts on their activities if the sequester goes into effect on March 1. Among them are NASA, and NOAA's parent Department of Commerce (DoC).
The committee held a hearing this morning on the impact of the sequester, but neither NASA nor NOAA was represented at the witness table. The letters to committee chairwoman Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-MD) provide a glimpse of what the sequester would mean to them, however.
The DoC letter states that "Significant and costly impacts to NOAA's weather satellites and other observational programs are ... certain. For example, sequestration will result in a 2-3 year launch delay for the first two next-generation geostationary weather satellites (currently planned to launch in 2015 and 2017).... This delay would increase the risk of a gap in satellite coverage and diminish the quality of weather forecasts and warnings."
GAO issued a report today adding the potential gap in weather satellite coverage to its High Risk List of areas that need special attention. That report does not appear to take into account the effects of sequestration.
The DoC letter does not mention NOAA's new polar orbiting weather satellite system, the Joint Polar Satellite System (JPSS). The new geostationary satellites in the GOES-R series may be of more concern at this moment because NOAA requested a significant increase in its FY2013 budget request to begin procurement of a launch vehicle for the first of those satellites. In total, the sequester would cut $551 million from DoC for FY2013. Up to 2,600 NOAA employees would have to be furloughed, 2,700 positions would not be filled, and the number of contractors would be reduced by about 1,400, the DoC letter says.
NASA's letter says that under sequestration, NASA's budget would be $16,984.7 million in direct discretionary spending. That would be a cut of $726.7 million from the President's FY2013 budget request of $17,771.4 million. If, in addition, Congress extends the current Continuing Resolution for the rest of FY2013, the cut would be $894.1 million from the annualized levels in the existing CR according to that letter.
The government is operating under a 6-month CR that generally holds agencies to their FY2012 funding levels. It expires on March 27 and the betting is that Congress will simply extend it for the rest of the fiscal year (through September 30), so agencies would get a double dose of budget woes -- the sequester and a full-year CR.
The NASA letter goes through its budget account by account highlighting the impact of the cuts from the sequester alone. The most dramatic impacts would be on Space Technology and Exploration. Space Technology's budget level would fall by $149.4 million from the FY2013 budget request of $699 million. The FY2013 budget request for Exploration of $3,932.8 million would lose $332.2 million and "reduce Commercial Space Flight funding by $441.6 million below the FY2013 budget request."
Congress did not complete action on any of the FY2013 budget requests, although the House did pass the Commerce-Justice-Science (CJS) appropriations bill that includes NASA. The bill was reported from the Senate Appropriations Committee, but there was no further action in the 112th Congress. NASA's request of $830 million for commercial crew was not approved by the House or the Senate committee in any case. The House-passed CJS bill approved $500 million and the Senate Appropriations Committee approved $525 million. Doing the math, if the sequester goes into effect, commercial crew would get $388 million. NASA says it would not be able to fund planned milestones in the fourth quarter and that would "significantly" delay the program.
NASA's letter does not discuss any cuts to the Space Launch System or Orion within the Exploration budget account, but the sequester "would adversely impact the infrastructure" needed for those and other NASA activities funded through the Construction and Environmental Compliance and Restoration (CECR) account.
NASA's science budget would be cut by a comparatively modest $51.1 million from the $4,911.2 million request, reducing funding for new Explorer and Earth Venture class mission selections and reducing research and analysis (R&A) by two percent. Aeronautics would be cut $7.3 million from its $551.5 million request.
The sequester has been particularly criticized for requiring "across-the-board" cuts meaning that each budget account is cut by the same percentage instead of allowing agencies to prioritize which are the most important activities. That does not appear to be accurate in NASA's case, however. The sequester requires a 5 percent cut for FY2013 for non-defense discretionary budgets like NASA. The Science budget of $4,911 million would be cut $51 million according to NASA's letter, closer to 1 percent than 5. The Exploration budget of $3,933 billion would be cut $332 million, closer to 10 percent and the cut to Space Technology is closer to 20 percent. Thus it appears that NASA did have some flexibility in allocating the cuts.
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