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Sequestration would come at 'great cost' to NASA

Posted: September 16, 2012

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NASA stands to lose nearly $1.5 billion in 2013 unless Congress acts to reduce budget deficits by the end of the year, and the outlook is even worse for U.S. military space programs, according to a report released on Friday by the White House.

President Obama in the Oval Office. Credit: Official White House photo by Pete Souza
The report was ordered by Congress to detail the Obama administration's plans for sequestration, automatic across-the-board budget cuts due to take effect Jan. 2.

The White House and Congress agreed on the sequestration plan in 2011 as part of a compromise to raise the federal government's debt limit. Sequestration was meant to be a "poison pill" to compel leaders in both parties to reach an agreement to reign in the budget deficit.

But the White House and Congress have not come up with a plan for deficit reduction. House Republicans demand a budget using only spending cuts to put a dent in the deficit, while President Obama and Senate Democrats favor a blueprint with tax increases and funding markdowns.

Congress must present a spending plan with targeted cuts by the end of the year, or the sequestration scenario will become a reality.

Proposals from the White House and House Republicans have, so far, collected no support from the other side.

Under the sequestration plan released by the White House's Office of Management and Budget, military programs would see a 9.4 percent budget cut next year. Like other non-defense agencies, NASA would be hit with a 8.2 percent reduction, equivalent to nearly $1.5 billion less than its fiscal 2013 budget request of $17.7 billion.

"While we hope for the best, we certainly are planning in case the worst happens, and it will come at a great cost to the space program," said NASA Deputy Administrator Lori Garver.

File photo of NASA Deputy Administrator Lori Garver. Credit: NASA/Paul Alers
NASA's space operations budget line, which funds the International Space Station, would be cut by $346 million. Exploration programs, including the Orion capsule, the Space Launch System, and commercial crew development, would be trimmed by $309 million.

The sequestration would net $417 million in savings from NASA's science budget. The space agency's science directorate contains funding for climate research satellites and solar system exploration projects to the moon, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, Mercury, Pluto, and asteroids.

NASA's space technology and aeronautics lines would each receive reductions of $47 million.

The agency's cross-agency support costs, which cover overhead and center operations, would be exempt from sequestration.

"In an organization like NASA, it doesn't take much to recognize that our very high institutional and overhead costs mean that those things that would be cut ... would be the meat - the programs," Garver said Tuesday at the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics Space 2012 conference in Pasadena, Calif.

NOAA's satellite budget would be slashed of $149 million meant for the next-generation GOES-R weather observatories and polar-orbiting spacecraft.

The Air Force's missile procurement account, which contains military communications, early warning, and navigation satellites, would be cut 9.4 percent next year, or about a $668 million reduction from the service's expected budget.

"The report leaves no question that the sequestration would be deeply destructive to national security, domestic investments, and core government functions," the White House report said.

"The sequestration itself was never intended to be implemented," the White House report said. "The administration strongly believes that sequestration is bad policy, and that Congress can and should take action to avoid it by passing a comprehensive and balanced deficit reduction package."

A joint "super committee" - with membership from both parties in both houses of Congress - failed to agree on a deficit reduction plan last fall.