WASHINGTON — The U.S. Congress approved a plan Jan. 1 that will delay for two months the deep, automatic spending cuts known as sequestration that would have sucked billions of dollars out of military and civil space programs this year.

NASA alone stood to lose $1.5 billion, or about 8 percent of its $17.8 billion budget, if Congress had failed to head off sequestration. The Senate voted 89-8 to pass legislation, formally known as the American Taxpayer Relief Act of 2012, that postpones the sequester for two months. The House of Representatives approved the measure late Jan. 1, which President Barack Obama then signed Jan. 3.

While NASA, the Pentagon and other federal agencies dodged a bullet, the measure provides only a temporary reprieve from the threat of deep budget cuts and sets the stage for another round of crisis-mode negotiations in Washington. That is because the bill Congress sent to the White House largely punted on spending cuts and entitlement reform and did not raise the federal government’s debt ceiling, a $16.4 billion limit on borrowing that the United States hit Dec. 31. The Treasury Department has said it can stave off defaulting on U.S. obligations for two months or so through actions such as suspending some investments in pension and health benefits funds for federal employees.

The Aerospace Industries Association (AIA), the Arlington, Va., trade group representing U.S. defense and aerospace contractors that depend heavily on federal spending, called on Congress and the White House to end the threat of across-the-board cuts once and for all.

“Sequestration is a slow motion catastrophe for our military forces, our space program and virtually every critical function of our government from air traffic control and border security to food inspection and more,” AIA President Marion Blakey said in a Jan. 2 statement. “We strongly urge Congress and President Obama to find a permanent bipartisan solution to sequestration; the clock has been reset and is ticking again.”

Meanwhile, Congress on Jan. 2 gave final passage to the Senate-amended version of H.R. 6586, a one-page bill that renews the U.S. government’s commercial launch indemnification regime through the end of 2013, extends NASA’s existing waiver to space station-related provisions of the Iran, North Korea, Syria Nonproliferation Act (INKSNA) from mid-2016 to the end of 2020, and includes a “Sense of Congress” clause that NASA should develop both the Space Launch System/Orion and commercial crew systems in a balanced manner. NASA needed the INKSNA relief so that it can begin negotiating with Russia the purchase of Soyuz vehicles  needed to fly astronauts to and from the international space station beyond 2016.

The original version of H.R. 6586, which passed the House in November, was a four-line bill that would have extended commercial launch indemnification — which shields U.S. launch providers against catastrophic third-party damage claims — through Dec. 31, 2014.

The SLS/Orion and INKSNA provisions were added to H.R. 6586 at the behest of Sens. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.) and Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-Texas) after the two failed to tack the NASA provisions onto a defense authorization bill that passed in December.

By the time the Senate approved the bill Jan. 1 and sent it back to the House for final passage, the launch indemnification provision had been pared back to a one-year renewal — a concession launch industry lobbyists said was necessary for the bill to pass the Senate by unanimous consent.

Nevertheless, a launch industry trade group applauded the temporary extension. “The American launch industry has become a highly competitive and important sector, both in the orbital and suborbital markets,” Commercial Spaceflight Federation President Michael Lopez-Alegria said in a Jan. 2 statement. “I commend Congress’ attention to this issue, as it will continue to support high-tech jobs in the launch industry and will allow the U.S. to compete in the international market.”

Unfinished business

The 112th Congress adjourned Jan. 2 without approving disaster relief funding for parts of the U.S. East Coast hit by Superstorm Sandy in October. NASA stood to receive $15 million to repair Sandy-related damages in a $60 billion package that cleared the Senate Dec. 28 only to die in the House. House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) has pledged to pass a smaller relief package by mid-January.

Another space bill that will have to be reintroduced in the new Congress is H.R. 6612, legislation to rename NASA’s Dryden Flight Research Center in California after Apollo 11 commander Neil Armstrong. The bill passed the House 404-0 in a roll call vote Dec. 31, but the Senate did not vote on the measure before adjourning.


SpaceNews correspondent Jeff Foust contributed to this article.

Dan Leone is a SpaceNews staff writer, covering NASA, NOAA and a growing number of entrepreneurial space companies. He earned a bachelor’s degree in public communications from the American University in Washington.