Editorial | A Glimmer of Hope

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New legislation designed to fund the U.S. federal government for the last six months of 2013 provides a level of budgetary protection for civilian weather satellite and human spaceflight programs, and that’s a good thing. But it’s far from clear how critical military space programs would fare under the bill, which was passed March 6 by the House of Representatives in a largely party-line vote.

Although the proposed bill gives the Defense Department an actual 2013 budget — most other agencies are kept to last year’s funding levels as part of a broad continuing resolution — and provides some spending flexibility, it trims $1 billion from the Air Force’s Missile Procurement account, which funds a substantial portion of the service’s space program. How that cut, which amounts to 18 percent of the $6 billion provided in 2012, would be apportioned among individual programs remains to be seen.

On top of that, sequestration, the $85 billion in across-the-board spending cuts triggered March 1 by the inability of Congress and the White House to agree on a long-term deficit reduction strategy, stands to further reduce the Missile Procurement account, to some $4.5 billion. The Air Force’s public sequestration coping strategy includes scaling back its space surveillance activities and deferring purchases of missile warning satellites.

For the space community, the more positive aspects of the proposed Full-Year Continuing Appropriations Act of 2013 appear to be on the civil side, even though NASA and the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) would be held to 2012 funding levels, not counting sequestration’s 5 percent hit. Most notably, the bill would boost funding for a critical weather satellite program to the $800 million level that was sought by NOAA. Had it not been singled out for special treatment, NOAA’s Geostationary-orbiting Operational Environmental Satellite-R program would stand to receive $615.6 million, the same as in 2012, and then give up 5 percent to sequestration. That likely would be insufficient to keep it on track for a 2015 launch.

Generally speaking, House lawmakers appear to have gotten the message that weather satellites are absolutely essential to public safety. In recent weeks, with the threat of sequestration and a full-year continuing resolution looming, government and industry officials have warned of gaps in satellite coverage, particularly from polar orbit, that could impair NOAA’s ability to track severe storms like Hurricane Sandy, which devastated parts of the northeastern United States last October. During a March 5 hearing on the subject, Rep. Frank Wolf (R-Va.), chairman of the House Appropriations subcommittee that oversees NOAA, said he would consider reprogramming funds “on an expedited basis” to ensure adequate funding for weather satellites.

That’s encouraging, as is the provision in the House-passed spending bill to provide $499 million for NASA’s Commercial Crew Program, the best near-term hope for restoring independent U.S. access to the international space station. While that’s considerably less than the $830 million NASA requested for this year, it beats the $385 million the effort would receive under a straight continuing resolution and sequestration scenario. To their credit, the House appropriators covered increases to the Commercial Crew and Space Launch System programs by drawing funds from a pair of accounts that under the current continuing resolution are receiving more funding than NASA requested. In doing so, they were able to keep NASA’s overall budget at the 2012 level.

Programmatic details of the House budget bill have yet to emerge, and the Senate of course is going to counter with its own version that likely will reflect different priorities. Meanwhile, sequestration, with its increasingly painful consequences, remains in effect until the White House and Congress can come to terms on a long-term fiscal strategy — something that’s eluded them for well over a year. But in Washington’s current toxic political climate, the legislation, even if prompted by the prospect of a government shutdown, has to be viewed as progress.