There’s good news and bad news for U.S. space exploration and exploitation, with the presidential election in the rearview mirror.
The good news is that the bipartisan space policy hammered out with a lot of angst over the past four years won’t need to be reviewed while a new president gets his feet on the ground. For now, at least, President Barack Obama’s space policy, as modified by members of both houses in Congress, will remain unchanged.
The bad news is that the whole U.S. space enterprise is heading toward the so-called fiscal cliff that could make a change of presidents look like just another bump in a perennially bumpy road. When the New Year’s fireworks light up at midnight on Dec. 31, the Budget Control Act of 2011 is set to whack $1.7 billion from’s fiscal 2013 spending level (and $54.7 billion from the — some of it for space).
At the same time, a whole basket of tax cuts is set to expire. Look for some potentially damaging brinkmanship, despite early indications that lawmakers and White House staffers may shelve their partisan bickering to avoid another recession.
“Sequestration,” as the mandatory cuts are termed, was designed to force action on the burgeoning federal deficit, so any deal struck in the coming weeks probably will include spending cuts. The crisis comes just asis beginning to make progress on some of the vehicles that will form the basis of U.S. exploration efforts to come: the Orion multi-purpose crew vehicle; commercial cargo carriers for the International Space Station (ISS); follow-on commercial crew vehicles for the ISS, and the heavy-lift Space Launch System that Congress insisted NASA build for deep-space missions.
The question, says one space-community player with long experience in Washington, is whether these and other civil and military spaceflight programs will become “bill-payers” in a budget deal, or part of a broader research and development effort to produce jobs and boost the economy long-term.
Unfortunately, the space-policy wars of the past few years have left the U.S. with a divided and essentially dysfunctional space-leadership team, so chance will play a large role in what comes next.
At the White House, absent a strong voice with a clear vision for space, relatively low-level civil servants in the Office of Management and Budget seem to be driving the decisions. Their job, says one OMB insider, is to cut budgets, and that’s what they are going to do without clear guidance to the contrary from their elected supervisors.
On Capitol Hill, traditional pork barrel politicians with a constituent stake will continue to struggle against ideological “budget hawks” over space spending, while most lawmakers focus their attention elsewhere. The $17.7 billion NASA wants to spend this fiscal year can be both a tempting source of cash and — in the context of the $1.2 trillion the sequestration bill aimed to trim from the deficit — a drop in the bucket.