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One Countdown Clock the Space Program Doesn’t Need

NOAA weather satellites, which correctly predicted the path of Superstorm Sandy (above), are threatened with funding cuts if Sequestration happens. Credit: NASA image

For months, the Aerospace Industries Association (AIA) has been using a digital countdown clock to draw attention to the threat from severe sequestration — automatic U.S. budget cuts that would undermine national defense, put 2.14 million aerospace and defense dependent jobs at risk and throw the economy back into a recession.

In addition to the harm sequestration poses to our security and economy, it would extract a huge toll on our civil space programs — one more reason for this countdown to end immediately.

As part of AIA’s public education and action campaign to ensure that the U.S. aerospace and defense sector remains “Second to None,” we’ve highlighted for elected officials and the public the dire stakes we face: $500 billion in defense cuts over nine years, and 8.2 percent annual cuts to NASA and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) spending. NASA stands to lose nearly $1.5 billion in the first year of sequestration and similar amounts in the next eight years. NOAA’s satellite programs would take an initial $154 million hit from sequestration and also suffer down the road.

Under sequestration, NASA’s Space Operations account, the budget line for the international space station, would be reduced by $346 million in fiscal year 2013. Would that hinder our ability to conduct research on this orbiting National Laboratory after our nation has invested tens of billions to create this unique facility? Absolutely. Similarly, sequestration means the U.S. government would keep sending Russia $60 million for astronaut rides to the international space station, as a $309 million cut to Exploration programs would delay development of a domestic commercial crew capacity. Sequestration would lead to further delays in the Orion capsule and Space Launch System, and our ability to once again conduct human exploration beyond low Earth orbit. In the realm of planetary exploration, do we want to aggressively follow up on the dramatic success of the Curiosity Mars rover? Not likely with $417 million in cuts to NASA’s science budget. Finally, NASA’s Space Technology and Aeronautics lines would be reduced by $47 million each.

NOAA’s weather satellites, which once again proved their critical importance by correctly predicting the path and ferocity of Superstorm Sandy, are not immune from the budget ax either. Sequestration cuts threaten to turn what will be at least a 17-month gap in polar orbiting weather satellite coverage beginning in 2017 into a much longer wait for these life-saving sentinels in the sky.

Sequestration’s impact would hit scientists and engineers as well. At the request of AIA, George Mason University economist Stephen Fuller has studied the numbers and concluded that under an 8.2 percent cut, over 20,000 jobs supporting NASA’s work would be lost, as well as 2,500 jobs supporting NOAA’s satellite programs. These NASA-related job losses would come exclusively from the private sector, as the NASA Authorization Act of 2010 prohibits any cuts to the agency’s civil service work force through fiscal 2013. This loss of more than 22,500 jobs would be significant — many of these are scientists, engineers and technicians who design, manufacture and operate our nation’s spacecraft. In short, these are some of the best high-skilled jobs our economy has to offer. Such a dramatic collapse in our technical work force would equate to a major loss in national space capability; these professionals would no doubt move over to other industries.

NASA sequestration would also deal major damage to those regions with high concentrations of aerospace activity around the country, known as industry clusters. Many space companies directly support NASA missions by designing and building spacecraft, and frequently co-locate with NASA centers. Other companies that support NASA are significant economic drivers in other key aerospace clusters that have no NASA center. The importance of maintaining these clusters cannot be overstated. They have been shown to promote economic efficiencies and specialization, encourage innovation and entrepreneurship, and drive prosperity for entire regions.

NASA and NOAA and their industry contractors have done their part to be fiscally responsible by instituting cost-saving strategies and reordering of budget priorities. But the fact is a basic level of investment is still needed for these agencies to serve the public good. Arbitrary and irresponsible sequestration budget cuts would senselessly jeopardize U.S. space leadership and stifle exactly the kinds of research and development investments in high-tech innovation our economy needs. Once these capabilities and jobs are lost, it would take decades to recover them — and most likely would cost more than would be saved in the near term.

Thankfully, serious negotiations are finally under way. But with few workdays left before we fall over the fiscal cliff, there is still much to be done. I hope our elected officials are wise enough to turn off the sequestration clock now and craft a balanced solution to our debt and deficit problems that includes a blend of revenue increases, entitlement reforms and judicious budget cuts that don’t undercut the ability of our nation’s space exploration and research agencies to serve as major drivers of scientific and technological progress.

 

Marion C. Blakey is president and chief executive of the Aerospace Industries Association.

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