House Moves To Blunt Sequester’s Impact on NASA Spaceflight Efforts

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WASHINGTON — NASA’s Space Launch System (SLS) and Commercial Crew programs would receive budget boosts under a nearly $1 trillion spending measure the U.S. House of Representatives approved March 6 to avert a government shutdown while shielding Republican priorities from across-the-board spending cuts known as sequestration.

The Full-Year Continuing Appropriations Act of 2013 (H.R. 933), approved by a mostly party-line vote of 267-151, was introduced March 4 by House Appropriations Committee Chairman Harold Rogers (R-Ky.) to keep the federal government running through September. Federal agencies have been funded since Oct. 1 under a six-month stopgap spending bill that expires March 27.

If H.R. 933 becomes law, NASA would still have to absorb the 5 percent budget cut that went into effect March 1 under sequestration. But the bill would also move a total of $381.2 billion from NASA Space Operations and Cross Agency Support accounts — which currently have more funding than the White House sought for this year — into the Exploration account in order to boost SLS and Commercial Crew above their 2012 levels. Both SLS and the privately owned spacecraft being developed under the Commercial Crew Program are expected to make their debuts in 2017.

The House proposal — which would boost the Defense and Veterans Affairs departments’ budgets above 2012 levels while leaving all other agencies with flat budgets minus a 5 percent sequestration hit — still needs to pass the Senate, where that chamber’s Democratic majority is expected seek changes meant to shield some of its priorities from the $85 billion in cuts required this year by sequestration. 

The White House also has signaled that it wants to see some changes, but said in a March 5 statement of administration policy that it could work with Congress to “refine the legislation.”

If the NASA provisions in H.R. 933 survive the Senate, the SLS program would see its budget rise slightly, to just over $2 billion, instead of falling below $1.8 billion. These funds cover the heavy-lift rocket’s development at the Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala., support for the program at NASA field centers across the country and SLS ground infrastructure at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida.

NASA’s Commercial Crew Program, meanwhile, would end up with about $499 million under H.R. 933. That is much less than the $830 million the White House requested for the program for 2013, but more than the $385 million it would get after the 5 percent sequester takes its bite. Commercial Crew had a $406 million annual appropriation before President Barack Obama signed the sequestration order March 1. 

Generally, the House and the Senate have both strongly supported SLS, funding the project at or above requested levels. Both chambers have been cautious about the Commercial Crew Program, which even the Democrat-controlled Senate has yet to fund at the levels the White House has sought for Obama’s signature space initiative.

In spending bills derailed last year by a highly charged U.S. presidential election, Senate appropriators agreed to give the Commercial Crew Program $525 million — a level that House appropriators later said they would also support.

“Basically, the numbers [in H.R. 933] reflect where we wanted to get, had we finished conferencing with the Senate last year,” a House aide said March 4.

Despite the House’s plan to shore up U.S. human spaceflight programs eroded by the sequester, the phase-in of these automatic budget cuts prompted Beth Robinson, NASA’s chief financial officer, to put contractors and other NASA funding recipients on notice that their agreements with the agency might soon be revisited.

“[B]ased on our initial analysis, it is possible that your contract, grant, cooperative agreement or Space Act agreement may be affected” by sequestration, Robinson wrote in a March 4 letter.

Without saying when it might happen, Robinson told contractors they would be contacted by NASA officials with more details.