Caption: NASA Astrophysics Director Paul Hertz Credit: NASA PHOTO BY PAUL E. ALERS

WASHINGTON — If the three-month stopgap spending bill now funding the federal government is extended to cover all of 2014, NASA’s Astrophysics Division — along with the rest of NASA’s Science Mission Directorate — will see its budget cut again to feed the James Webb Telescope (JWST), expenses for which are rising as the telescope enters peak development years.

Under the bill U.S. President Barack Obama signed Oct. 16 to end a two-week government shutdown, NASA Astrophysics is being funded at an annualized level of $607 million, roughly $50 million a month through mid-January. That is below even the $617 million the division received in 2013 after across-the-board sequestration cuts took place, Paul Hertz, the division’s director, told the National Research Council’s Committee on Astronomy and Astrophysics Nov. 4.

“If the Science Mission Directorate budget stays flat from 2013 to 2014 and JWST received the funding required to stay on track … then the other parts of the Directorate have to go down from 2013 to 2014 to accommodate the increase,” Hertz said in a Nov. 6 email.

In 2013, sequestration cuts set in motion by the Budget Control Act of 2011 reduced NASA’s top line about 5 percent, leaving the agency with roughly $16.9 billion. NASA’s Astrophysics Division, which ended up with $31.4 million less than it had in 2012 and $42.4 million less than it had sought for 2013 activities, responded to the cuts by delaying development and selection of small space missions, asking researchers to wait for grant money, and deferring maintenance at facilities across the country.

Among astrophysics projects, only JWST, billions of dollars over budget and years late to the launch pad, was spared from sequestration, receiving exactly the $627.6 million the White House requested for 2013. That is up from $518.6 million in 2012. According to the White House’s 2014 budget request, JWST’s budget is set to peak at $658.2 million in 2014, then gradually fall back to $535 million by the time it launches in 2018.

To make sure the telescope gets that money, “all the other parts of [the Science Mission Directorate will] take larger hits” to protect JWST’s budget, Hertz told the National Research Council panel.

Sequestration is still a threat for NASA and the rest of the federal government. A House-Senate budget committee created by the stopgap spending bill now funding the government is at work on a sequestration alternative that would fund the federal government through September and replace $109 billion in mandatory spending cuts set to take effect in January with a mix of presumably smaller cuts, tax hikes and entitlement reforms aimed at reducing the U.S. deficit. 

However, if the committee fails to produce an alternative to sequestration, Congress could pass another stopgap spending bill — subject to sequestration — to keep the government open for the rest of the 2014 budget year. The exact price NASA would pay is yet to be determined, but Hertz, citing sources within NASA who have been briefed by the White House Office of Management and Budget, said the agency could wind up with as little as $16.25 billion.

This bicameral budget committee has been given until Dec. 13 to complete its work, but the leaders of the House and Senate Appropriations Committees, Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.) and Rep. Harold Rogers (R-Ky.), have implored the conferees to come up with an agreement by Nov. 22. That would leave more time to write appropriations bills as “either the House or the Senate will be out of session for three out of those four weeks” between the  joint committee’s Dec. 13 deadline and the Jan. 15 expiration of the current spending bill, they wrote in an Oct. 31 letter to the joint committee. Mikulski and Rogers also asked that conferees immediately settle on caps for discretionary spending — the category that includes NASA — in 2014 and 2015.

For Hertz, the future is still uncertain. The last joint congressional committee charged with spending reform failed to accomplish the task in 2011, triggering the sequestration cuts that have complicated budget planning across the federal government.

“I worry about how astrophysics will be funded … in this year, and next year, and for however long sequestration lasts,” Hertz said Nov. 4.

Follow Dan on Twitter: @Leone_SN

Dan Leone is the NASA reporter for SpaceNews, where he also covers other civilian-run U.S. government space programs and a growing number of entrepreneurial space companies. He joined SpaceNews in 2011.Dan earned a bachelor's degree in public communications...