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Showdown Over Sequestration May Jeopardize NASA’s Commercial Crew Initiative

The White House and Congress are on course for another showdown over Sequestration -- a round of automatic federal spending cuts -- set for March 1.

It’s a replay of the confrontation they managed to avoid just before New Year’s Day.

This time, the cuts may take affect, according to experts. President Obama has urged lawmakers to pursue a less drastic course. His critics say he set sequestration in motion.

In all, sequestration would force $85 billion in budget reductions through Sept. 30, or the end of the 2013 fiscal year.

At NASA, efforts to foster competitive commercial crew services capable of transporting astronauts to and from the International Space Station by 2017 would be in jeopardy. The U. S. lost the ability to launch its own astronauts into space as the shuttle fleet was retired in mid-2011.

Currently, the U. S. pays Russia about $63 million for the launching of each non cosmonaut to the orbiting science laboratory. NASA’s work on the Orion/Multi-Purpose Crew Launch Vehicle, the Space Launch System and new ground systems, all needed to start U. S. astronauts on future missions of deep space exploration would be slowed as well, according to agency documents provided to U. S. Senate appropriators earlier this month.

The Aerospace Industries Association has been among those most vocal in calling for the president and Congress to avoid the cuts and instead deliberate future spending and deficit reduction.

“The devastating impacts of sequestration are well documented and already being felt,” said Marion C. Blakey, the  AIA president and CEO, in a Feb. 13 statement. She cited AIA sponsored studies of the impact of sequestration on aU. S.economy experiencing a slow recovery from recession. “With such a fragile U. S.economy, now is not the time to put nearly 2.14 million jobs at risk,” said Blakey. “Government workers from all agencies face massive furloughs — further crippling necessary governmental functions.”

Currently, the U. S.government is operating under a long term Continuing Resolution based on the 2012 fiscal year budget rather than the president’s proposed 2013 budget.  If applied against the CR, NASA will face $894 million in reductions.

If applied against the proposed 2013 budget, the space agency faces a $727 million cut, according to a Feb. 5 assessment that NASA Administrator Charles Bolden provided U.  S. Sen. Barbara Mikulski, of Maryland, chair of the U. S. Senate Appropriations Committee.

In the field of aeronautics, cuts to NASA’s budget would slow multi-agency efforts to develop a next generation air traffic management system.

The cuts would also slow research aboard the International Space Station as well as on NASA science missions that are already under way, according to the correspondence.

However, it’s NASA commercial crew initiative that could become the most visible casualty.

“Overall availability of commercial crew transportation services would be significantly delayed, thereby extending our reliance on foreign providers for crew transportation to the International Space Station,” according to the assessment Bolden furnished.

Currently, NASA is partnered with Boeing, Sierra Nevada and SpaceX in the development of new commercial astronaut launch systems. Other federal agencies were required to furnish Senate appropriators with impact statements as well.

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