Budget Uncertainty Weighs on NASA and Space Industry

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SAN DIEGO — “How many of you know what your budget is going to be next year? Raise your hand,” said Larry James, a retired Air Force lieutenant general and the new deputy director of JPL, in introductory comments at Tuesday morning’s plenary session of the AIAA Space 2013 conference in San Diego. As you might expect, effectively no one in the audience of several hundred space professionals did.

That uncertainty about civil and military space budgets as fiscal year 2014 approaches was a recurring theme at the conference yesterday, where government and industry officials emphasized the “changing landscape” of the industry and the need for innovation. With NASA expected to at least start the fiscal year next month under a continuing resolution (CR), one that could potentially be extended for the full year (just yesterday the chairman of the House Appropriations Committee introduced a CR that runs through December 15), plus the prospects of another round of across-the-board cuts triggered by sequestration, few at the conference expressed a lot of optimism about the agency’s fiscal situation.

“There is a rumor that some plans are being drawn for a ’14 budget that’s compliant with sequestration which may be as low as $16.1 billion” for NASA, said Roger Krone, president of Boeing’s Network and Space Systems business unit, in that Tuesday morning plenary session. He didn’t offer more details about that rumor, but would be consistent with a roughly five-percent cut from NASA’s final FY13 appropriation, itself trimmed by five percent from the appropriations bill passed by Congress in March. A presentation at a NASA Advisory Council science committee meeting in late July used an estimate of $16.16 billion for a post-sequestration NASA budget in 2014.

How those cuts, or even the application of a CR, would filter down to the various programs in the agency remains to be determined. NASA’s Commercial Crew Program, for example, was a beneficiary of the final operating plan released last month, seeing its budget restored to $525 million, the level approved by Congress prior to the application of sequestration. Ed Mango, manager of the program, told reporters at a briefing late Tuesday at Space 2013 that he wasn’t sure if that higher number would transfer over into 2014 if there is a CR. “If we are under a CR, we will be, unless there’s new legislation that adds to the CR, somewhere between $488 and 525 million,” he said. “A CR, and how that impacts Commercial Crew, is still to be determined.” He did add that the program is in good shape through the final weeks of fiscal year 2013 and, under some estimates, through all of 2014 as well.

“I would say the largest issue we’re facing is more of a programmatic thing, and it’s around the budget, and frankly around budget uncertainty,” said NASA’s Todd May, manager of the Space Launch System program, during a panel session on NASA’s human spaceflight programs at the conference Tuesday. Budgets are tight, he said, but that was common to past programs he’s worked on at NASA. “So far, we have met the challenge. We have done everything we can do to keep this thing on track.”

While former NASA deputy administrator Lori Garver suggested upon her departure last week that SLS and Orion would likely suffer delays, May insisted SLS was remaining on schedule, even with the current budget concerns. “We just have to wait and let the appropriations process work itself out,” he said. “Every year, when all was said and done, we got what we needed to get the job done. I’m here to tell you that we’re on track for [a first launch in] ’17. We’ll see how things work out.”

 

This story first appeared on the Space Politics website.