CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla — A lot has been said about “Sequestration,” which begins March 1, and there has been some coverage about the effects of sequestration on NASA’s budget. But enough has not been said about what impact sequestration will have on NASA’s space efforts. A review highlights the impacts as well as the positive aspects of the impending budget cuts. In short, the Science and Construction budgets for NASA are cut, but not severely. NASA’s current commercial crew program, CCiCap, will see a substantial cut of roughly 25 percent. By end of April or early May, just less than three months, CCiCap could be out of money.
On February 5, NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden outlined the effects of sequestration upon NASA’s budget in a letter to Senate Appropriations Chairwoman Barbara Mikulski. After reading Administrator Bolden’s letter, the first thing to note about sequestration is that NASA’s Exploration budget, which includes the “Human Exploration Capabilities” and “Commercial Spaceflight” budgets, will only see a modest cut. “Human Exploration Capabilities,” which is the Orion and SLS programs, will be for the most part unaffected by sequestration. During a briefing held to discuss the future of the space agency’s human space exploration initiatives, AmericaSpace asked NASA’s Associate Administrator for Exploration Systems Development Dan Dumbacher about what impact sequestration would have on NASA:
“Sequestration will not affect SLS or Orion immediately; we are working to the schedule. Sequestration, as we currently understand, will affect NASA to the tune of about a 5 percent hit. We’ve worked very hard to work that into the programs, to plan for it, prepare for it … there will be some impacts, as you mentioned, that will occur across the agency. But in terms of SLS and Orion, we’re working to hold schedule at least for the near term and minimize those impacts that do occur.”
The 5 percent cut in NASA’s budget due to sequestration falls heavily on the Agency’s Construction and Environmental Compliance (CECR), Science, and Commercial Crew programs. NASA has been working to modernize many of its facilities. Sequestration will see these efforts cut from the president’s proposed budget of $619.2 billion to $367.5 billion. The agency’s Science budget will drop from the president’s proposed $4.91 billion to $4.86 billion. Of all of the efforts within NASA affected by sequestration, it is Commercial Crew that receives the deepest cuts. It bears mentioning that the House and Senate appropriations subcommittees with NASA oversight had only approved roughly $5-$5.1 billion for Science and $598-$679 million for Construction for fiscal year 2013.
President Obama had requested $830 million for 2013 to enable private companies to assume the responsibility of sending crew (and cargo) to low-Earth orbit destinations, mainly the International Space Station. House and Senate appropriators had appropriated $500-$525 million for commercial crew. With sequestration, the Commercial Crew Program budget declines to $388.1 million. This dramatic cut will have a sizable effect upon efforts by NASA to promote commercial crew development.
Those promoting the efforts of commercial space have long stated that the commercial space companies were distinct from “Old Space,” in that they were using their own funds to develop the launch vehicles and spacecraft that will undertake these missions. This has since been proven to be a bit of hyperbole. Amounts vary, but estimates place the actual cost to taxpayers as high as 90 percent of total funds the commercial companies have received. During testimony in the nation’s Capitol, SpaceX stated that the breakdown of its commercial crew investments is as follows: $200 million came from the company itself while some $1.2 billion came from government. Boeing and Sierra Nevada Corporation have not gone on record as to how much of their total funding is from their own coffers to fund their commercial crew efforts.
There have been concrete results of NASA’s commercial space efforts. So far, Space Exploration Technologies (SpaceX) has launched two unmanned versions of the company’s Dragon spacecraft to the International Space Station in the last year. SpaceX’s next cargo mission is slated to lift off no earlier than March 1 and will be the second mission under NASA’s Commercial Resupply Services (CRS) contract. This is another commercial effort that has repeatedly worked to build bridges with the nascent commercial space industry.
Beyond commercial cargo is the dream of getting commercial space companies to the point where they can launch astronauts into low-Earth orbit. In August, NASA announced that Boeing, Sierra Nevada, and SpaceX had won a place in the Commercial Crew Integrated Capability, or CCiCap, program. CCiCap is a 20-month program, lasting from August 2012 through May 2014, and budgeted at $1.112 billion. With sequestration, CCiCap’s budget for fiscal year 2013 will see a nearly 47 percent cut from $611.1 million to $388.1 million. According to NASA’s Administrator Charlie Bolden, none of the CCiCap milestones for the last quarter of 2013 will be funded. This might be a moot point as the CCiCap program, as can be seen from the chart below, will run out of money in about two months’ time.
Here is what that means for the three CCiCap participants in terms of how much funding each will and will not receive:
|Company||FY 2013 CCiCap Funding||FY 2013 CCiCap Shortfall|
As devastating as the funding news for CCiCap participants is, this could, however, end up being a benefit to the companies working under CCiCap in particular and to the emerging commercial space industry.
At present, the government has provided, at the very least, 90 percent of all of the funding the commercial space companies have used to build, test, and launch their rockets and spacecraft. Simply put, nobody knows if any of the current commercial space companies can survive without government largess. Sequestration could serve to wean Boeing, Sierra Nevada, and SpaceX from this dependence on taxpayer funding and incent them to fund their efforts through investors, as do commercial companies. Other companies who have undergone a loss of NASA funding—e.g. ATK, which made the shuttle’s solid motors—have emerged leaner and more efficient. At some point, when the federal government comes out of the fiscal woods, the surviving commercial space companies will be more competitive, better able to survive under government fixed-price contracts, and form a stronger foundation for a truly commercial effort to go into space.
Note: From Oct. 1, 2012, through March 1, 2013, or the first five months of fiscal year 2013, NASA’s CCiCap has been funded at $412M through a continuing appropriations resolution; where from March through Oct. 1, or the remaining seven months of the fiscal year, it will be funded at $388.1M. For more information on NASA’s budget, please see the chart below.