A continuation of across-the-board budget sequestration into fiscal 2014 will force NASA to renegotiate contracts, including those for commercial resupply of the International Space Station, and begin furloughing employees, according to Administrator Charles Bolden.
Testifying on NASA’s fiscal 2014 budget request before the Senate Appropriations Committee April 25, Bolden said the agency has been able to accommodate the fiscal 2013 sequestration without furloughs or major programmatic disruptions. That will change Oct. 1 if sequestration continues, he told Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.), who chairs the appropriations subcommittee that funds NASA.
“My assumption in recommending this budget to the president, and the president’s assumption in sending it to the Congress, was that between him and all of you, with 100 senators and 400-plus members of Congress, we are going to solve the sequester problem in this budget coming out,” Bolden said. “If that is not done, . . . it will impact the priorities that NASA and the Congress agreed to.”
Impacts could include a delay in the planned 2018 launch of the James Webb Space Telescope—a Goddard Space Flight Center project that Mikulski is watching closely—as well as the planned 2017 first flight of the heavy-lift Space Launch System (SLS), continued development of the Orion multipurpose crew vehicle and plans to begin flying U.S. crews on commercial spacecraft now being developed with partial NASA funding in 2017. The agency has long said that date will slip if Congress does not fund the program at the $822 million level requested in fiscal 2014, and Bolden said continued sequestration will also cause delays.
SpaceX already has delivered two loads of cargo to the International Space Station under its 12-flight, $1.6 billion Commercial Resupply Services (CRS) contract, and Orbital Sciences plans to complete its demonstration missions and begin fulfilling its eight-flight, $1.9 billion CRS contract this year. But Bolden cautioned that will change if sequestration continues.
“I’ll have to renegotiate those contracts,” he said. “We won’t fly the number of missions that we have. Right now we’re flying 20 commercial cargo missions to the International Space Station over the next five years for three-point-some-odd billion dollars, an incredible value to the nation. I can’t carry that out under sequester.”
And while the agency has been able to avoid furloughing civil servants in fiscal 2013, “in all probability I will have to furlough . . . I’m not telling anybody I can work a miracle. If we cannot get out from under sequester, all bets are off.”
Bolden said a 2014 sequester would take the agency budget down to about $16.2 billion from $16.8 billion this year. Mikulski has proposed a 1% transfer authority within agencies to help smooth the impact of continued sequestration, but Bolden said it would not be enough.