Groups protest cuts to NASA, NOAA

The 2012 appropriations bill – still being debated in Congress – has substantial cuts both to NASA and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, prompting calls of concern from aviation and aerospace groups.

“We recognize that tough economic times call for tough choices,” said Marion Blakey of the Aerospace Industries Association. “However, cutting NASA and NOAA this deeply threatens American leadership in space, and impairs our ability to make life-saving weather predictions.”

The House of Representatives Subcommittee on Commerce, Justice and Science cuts NASA’s programs by 10 percent from the President’s request and nearly 13 percent from the NASA authorization last October. Some programs suffer deep, draconian cuts under the suggestions, Blakey said.

One of those programs for NASA includes the James Webb Space Telescope, the successor to the Hubble telescope. The move would reset the agency’s budget at pre-2008 levels.

“JWST will lay the foundation on which a better understanding of the early universe will be built,” said Debra Elmegreen, president of the American Astronomical Society. “It has the potential to transform astronomy even more than the Hubble Space Telescope did, and it will serve thousands of astronomers in the decades ahead. We cannot abandon it now.”

Construction the telescope has faced fiscal hurdles, including a $1.5 billion overrun. A revamped budget estimates that the telescope could launch by 2018.

Given the current fiscal environment, the AIA wants to keep the $18.7 billion in funding proposed by Obama, as the minimum required to operate the telescope programs and a host of others, including the Constellation and Orion projects – both of which are being researched and manufactured in Colorado.

Companies are also keeping a closer eye on non-space legislation to make sure that a Member doesn’t slip an amendment into a bill at the last minute that cuts funding for space, as has happened recently when Rep. Weiner added an amendment to a law-enforcement bill that transferred $300 million away from NASA.

“We haven’t seen any major signs of pre-emptive cutting back by industry, but we have heard from multiple companies that they are looking for efficiencies that they can present to Congress and the Administration while advocating the continuation of their programs and contracts,” said Micah Walter-Range of The Space Foundation, based in Colorado Springs.  ” These appear to be mostly process-oriented efficiencies, as opposed to layoffs.”

Currently, the space shuttle program is over – and the United States is now paying Russia for rides to the International Space Station. The AIA reports that 58 percent of Americans support a national commitment to space exploration, according to the Pew Research Center.

“Each ride to the space station that NASA buys from Russia is the annual equivalent of 1,000 American aerospace jobs,” Blakey said. “We should be paying Americans instead of Russians.”

In addition, NOAA would get $1 billion less than the President’s request—an 18 percent cut to satellite and early warning systems. But some of that funding, about $429 million, could be restored.

The appropriations committee is expected to add the additional money to the budget to speed up the launch of replacement satellites and shorten the time the country will go without collecting atmospheric information.

The money pays for polar-orbiting satellites close to the earth that provide data to make weather forecasts beyond 48 hours, according to NOAA.

However, even if Congress granted the entire $1 billion requested by President Obama next year, the shortfall this year will cause a gap in coverage in 2016, said NOAA administrator Jane Lubchenco. There will be a lag in the time the temporary satellite stops working and the new satellites are launched.

“The health of our space programs has major implications for the innovation economy, the national maintenance of critical skill sets and fostering math and science education,” Blakey said. “Supporting NASA and NOAA at stable and predictable funding levels is crucial for mission success, impacting lives, the economy and our nation’s security.”

Legislation has not yet been introduced in the full House or in Senate committee.