On Jan. 3, U.S. President Barack Obama signed legislation delaying sequestration and the attendant fiscal cliff. An automatic across-the-board budget cut of $85 billion, half to defense and half to discretionary spending, is now scheduled to go into effect on March 1.
Although there are exceptions, the default position within the U.S. aerospace industry is that falling off the fiscal cliff would be a bad thing. Spaceflight executives, engineers and scientists are lobbying hard to avoid sequestration. But is that really to the space community’s net advantage?
The good news is that if sequestration happens and the United States does fall off the cliff, it will put a significant dent in the $1 trillion annual deficit. That would cut future borrowing costs and potentially reduce the magnitude of future reductions in government spending.
How bad will things get if sequestration occurs? For NASA, the answer is fairly straightforward. The continuing resolution that is currently funding NASA at 2012’s level, which is higher than the 2013 $17.7 billion request, combined with sequestration, would result in an effective cut to slightly less than $17 billion. In the current fiscal environment, any cut is likely to be permanent and the baseline for future NASA requests. It is very unlikely to be restored in future years.
There is no doubt that such a cut would hurt. Most importantly, funding for the Commercial Crew Program would be reduced by more than half the request, to $388 million, even below what NASA has in the current continuing resolution. Given congressional opposition to the program, a significant cut was probably in the cards anyway, even though the result would be extended reliance on Russia for transportation to the international space station. For advocates of commercial space transportation, the fiscal cliff might not meaningfully change an already bad situation.
Since NASA has been able to fund projects at the higher levels of the continuing resolution for two months longer than expected, overall cuts to NASA resulting from sequestration would be substantially less than the 8.5 percent that would have occurred had sequestration happened as scheduled. The space industry could probably soldier on, through incremental reductions and slowing development. NASA probably would be able to avoid wholesale cancellation of large programs and contracts — at least for this year.
Delays are always bad. As engineers are employed for longer on stretched-out programs, the total costs increase more than any money saved in a particular year. In the long term, it is better to make decisions and cancel programs, but given the toxic political environment, decisiveness of any kind is unlikely.
Let’s consider the question in reverse. What if sequestration does not happen?
First of all, no agreement for intelligently planned spending cuts and tax increases is on the horizon. The most likely outcome would be more of the same: another extension and further delays, while the already surreal deficits continue to mount. That would make the day of reckoning, when it finally arrives, that much harder — for NASA and everyone else.
If the gloves-off battle between the Obama administration and the legislative branch over the cancellation of Constellation is anything to go by, spaceflight spending today has more political support than historically has been the case. Constellation was the Apollo-like plan to return to the Moon proposed by then-President George W. Bush with bipartisan support in both houses of Congress. Mr. Obama’s abrupt cancellation of that plan, approved by a rare sustained consensus, outraged many legislators.
Constellation’s supporters have fought a rear-guard action ever since, keeping parts of the project alive, including the Orion deep-space capsule and the expensive Space Launch System () rocket. They have actively fought what they see as raids on the SLS budget to support commercial space.
Now that Mr. Obama is serving a second term, some believe he will again attempt to cancel the SLS in favor of more subsidies for commercial crew transportation to the international space station. Whether he does so or not, even planned declines in NASA’s budget make a renewed flare-up of this battle likely.
Any increased support for spaceflight, though, remains somewhat divorced from the real world: In general, support for space spending is tied to the congressional districts most dependent on it. It is rarely coupled with the requirement to make choices — what to cut to pay for it.
In the unlikely event of a planned budget decline, Congress would be able to set priorities and not every program would be affected equally. Even if one considers spaceflight of vital importance to the long-term future of our country, when placed in direct competition, can NASA really compete with more immediate and locally important needs such as infrastructure spending and social programs? How about more powerful and politically important constituencies like the departments of Health and Human Services, Education, Housing and Urban Development, and, of course, Defense? If entitlements such as Social Security or Medicare, and significant tax increases, remain off the table, non-defense spending will need to be cut severely.
When forced to make a choice, most legislators will defend what they and their constituents perceive to be their most vital interests. Outside of districts where NASA spending dominates the economy, these interests are unlikely to include preparations to send astronauts, or even robots, to Mars — or to the Moon or an asteroid.
The bottom line is that the nation’s future in space may well fare better in an across-the-board sequestration than it would in a planned drawdown. If we fall off the fiscal cliff, we all fall together.
Donald F. Robertson is a freelance space industry journalist based in San Francisco. For further examples of his work, see www.DonaldFRobertson.com.