NASA Creates New Mission Directorate for Space Technology as Sequester Cuts Loom – Clarification

NASA Creates New Mission Directorate for Space Technology as Sequester Cuts Loom – Clarification

CLARIFICATION:  This article was modified February 24.  See Editor’s Note below for details.

The long awaited formal announcement of a new Space Technology Mission Directorate (STMD) at NASA Headquarters was made on February 21.   The move should help put space technology on a more equal footing with science, exploration, and aeronautics organizationally, although looming budget cuts due to the sequester and the likelihood of a full-year Continuing Resolution (CR) may constrain its activities.

On the one hand, the Obama Administration has been a champion for space technology investments, expanding the role of the Office of the Chief Technologist (OCT) and giving it more progammatic responsibility.   Under the new structure, STMD will oversee many of those programs while Chief Technologist Mason Peck leads efforts in technology transfer and commercialization.  OCT will also continue to develop strategic partnerships, manage agency-level competitions and prize activities, and document and communicate the societal impacts of NASA’s technology efforts.  Mike Gazarik will be STMD’S Associate Administrator.  He had been serving as director of the Space Technology Program under Peck. 

On the other hand, space technology would suffer a 20 percent cut in funding compared to the level NASA sought in its FY2013 budget request if the sequester goes into effect and NASA is held to its FY2012 funding level for all of FY2013.   NASA and the rest of the government is currently operating under a 6-month Continuing Resolution (CR) that expires on March 27.  Generally it holds agencies to their FY2012 funding levels and there is a broad expectation that Congress will extend the CR through the rest of the fiscal year (a “full year CR”).

The across-the-board spending cuts known as the sequester would cut 5 percent from each of NASA’s budget accounts, but for space technology the larger impact would come from being held to its FY2012 funding level.    Space technology’s FY2012 appropriation was roughly $574 million, while the FY2013 request was $699 million.

The overall 20 percent reduction is shown in a letter NASA sent to Senator Barbara Mikulski (D-MD), chair of the Senate Appropriations Committee.  The committee held a hearing on February 14 on “Impacts of Sequestration” and also published letters from many agencies detailing how the sequester would affect their portfolios. 

NASA’s letter states that space technology would be reduced by $149.4 million from the FY2013 request of $699 million.   At that level of funding, STMD “cannot maintain its technology portfolio as several projects underway require increased funding in FY 2013 to proceed.  Thus NASA would likely have to cancel one of these projects or be able to offer no new awards for programs that vary in scope from research grants, to public-private partnerships, to in-space demonstrations during FY 2013.”  The letter goes on to list additional reductions or cancellations that might be needed. 

It is not obvious in the letter, however, that the potential reductions are not only due to the sequester, but to the anticipated full year CR.  The sequester calls for a 5 percent reduction, which would be about $29 million from space technology’s FY2012 appropriated level of $575 million.  The larger impact is the difference between that and the $699 million NASA sought for FY2013.

Whether space technology gets 20 percent less than it hoped for in FY2013 thus is dependent not only on whether the sequester goes into effect, but the details of what action Congress takes on FY2013 appropriations for the rest of the year.  Even if Congress does pass a full year CR, it is possible it will make exceptions for some activities so the impact is difficult to gauge at this point.

EDITOR’S NOTE:   The original version of this article, published February 21, 2013, was modified on February 24 based on additional information we received on how to interpret NASA’s letter to Senator Mikulski concerning the effects of the sequester as explained in a companion article we published last night.  Briefly, our original article contained paragraphs stating that, based on the figures in the Mikulski letter, the Obama Administration had singled out space technology for a 20 percent cut, more than other NASA accounts, when applying the sequester, rather than applying it equally to all its budget accounts.  Subsequently, however, we learned that the figures in the Mikulski letter reflect not only the sequester, but the impacts of a full year CR.   We are now convinced that the Administration applied the sequester equally to all its budget accounts, not favoring one versus another.

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