Bolden Says Furloughs Likely if Sequester Continues Into FY2014

Bolden Says Furloughs Likely if Sequester Continues Into FY2014

In an abbreviated hearing on NASA’s FY2014 budget request this morning, Senate appropriators ploughed little new ground, but one message that came through loud and clear is that if the sequester continues past the current fiscal year “all bets are off” in terms of what will happen to NASA.

That is the phrase used by NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden today as well as at yesterday’s hearing on the House side.  Today he went into slightly more detail about the potential consequences at the request of Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-MD).   Mikulski chairs the full Senate Appropriations Committee as well as the Commerce-Justice-Science (CJS) subcommittee that took testimony from Bolden today.  Mikulski was late to the 9:30 am ET hearing, apologizing that it took her two hours to get to Capitol Hill from her home in Baltimore this morning.  She joked that she needed one of Bolden’s rockets.   She thanked committee vice-chairman Sen. Richard Shelby (R-AL) for starting the hearing without her and said it was a sign of the committee’s bipartisanship.   The hearing was limited in its duration because a special briefing for Senators was scheduled for 10:30 on North Korea and Syria, Mikulski explained.  NASA Inspector General Paul Martin was scheduled to testify, but his statement was submitted for the record instead.

Mikulski, Shelby, and Sen. Thad Cochran (R-MS) were the only Senators present and the questions fell along familiar lines.  Shelby made clear that he wants NASA to spend money on the Space Launch System (SLS), which is being built at Marshall Space Flight Center in his state, and not the commercial crew program.   Cochran wanted to ensure that the interests of Stennis Space Center in his state were represented.  Mikulski wanted assurances that the James Webb Space Telescope, being built at Goddard Space Flight Center in her state, remains on cost and schedule.   She brought up last week’s GAO report that says the telescope is overweight and two instruments will be 11 months late.  Bolden was surprised by a similar question at yesterday’s House hearing, but was ready today.  He referenced the 14 month schedule reserve that the program has and said instrument delivery was adjusted to compensate for the 11- month slip and the project overall remains on cost and schedule for launch in 2018. 

Mikulski pressed Bolden on what will happen if the sequester remains in place as it will under current law.  Although attention has been focused on the impact of the sequester on FY2013, under the 2011 Budget Control Act, it actually remains in place through FY2021.  The Administration’s budget requests for NASA and other departments and agencies assume that agreement will be reached to replace the sequester with another method of deficit reduction. 

If it remains in place, however, Bolden said that NASA’s budget would drop from its $16.8 billion sequestered level for FY2013 to $16.2 billion.  Such a cut would impact JWST and  SLS/Orion and “devastate” commercial cargo and commercial crew, he said.  He added that he also would have to furlough civil servants when the FY2014 budget becomes effective.  NASA was funded at $17.8 billion in FY2012 and the request for FY2014 is $17.7 billion.  

Shelby has not been shy about expressing his lack of enthusiasm for the commercial crew program, today calling privately funded vehicles a “fiction” that diverts funding from NASA developing human spaceflight capabilities with SLS.  Asserting that he is a long time supporter of public-private partnerships to leverage private resource, but in this case, he said, NASA is giving the companies $1.5 billion without knowing how much the companies themselves are investing.   He objects to the use of Space Act Agreements (SAAs) instead of traditional contracts under Federal Acquisition Regulations (FARs).  Bolden said that the amount of money the companies are investing is competition-sensitive proprietary information and that the SAAs provide “satisfactory insight and oversight.” 

Bolden repeated what he said yesterday that if the agency does not receive the full $822 million request for commercial crew in FY2014, “it will be my unfortunate duty” to tell Congress and the White House that the United States probably will not be able to launch astronauts by 2017.  He added that he will need to ask for new authority to contract with the Russians for additional launches.  It is “not my desire” to come back and ask for more money to pay the Russians, he stressed.

No questions were asked about NASA’s new asteroid retrieval strategy.  In his opening statement, Shelby said he was concerned that the budget request is an example of “chasing the next great idea while sacrificing current investments,” but did not mention the asteroid mission specifically.

A webcast of the hearing is available on the committee’s website.

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