Sequester hits Space Symposium in unexpected ways

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Sequestration has thrown uncertainty and confusion into the budget and travel-planning process for the nation’s military and its civilian contractors.

And that ambiguity is affecting one of the biggest conventions in Colorado Springs, the annual Space Symposium hosted by the international nonprofit Space Foundation.

“What we’ve seen, most of all, is confusion,” said Elliot Pulham, executive director for the foundation. “The picture for the government changed when the event that nobody thought would happen, actually happened.”

Sequestration is a series of budget cuts that went into effect March 1. Passed in 2011, it was designed to be so unpalatable to both political parties that a compromise would replace it. But both Democrats and Republicans dug in their heels — and sequestration promises to cut $85 billion from the government’s budget in the next six-plus months. Without a solution, in the next 10 years the nation’s budget would be cut by $1.2 trillion, half of that coming from the Department of Defense.

Government agencies have until March 27 to figure out how to implement the across-the-board cuts.

Pulham says his group has spent countless hours working with people interested in attending the symposium, but hamstrung by complex, changing budget rules about travel and expenses.

“My people have spent hours combing through documents to figure out each department’s new budget requirements,” he said. “It’d be nice if the government had one set of requirements for everyone, but it doesn’t. So we’re working to understand the new process, and working to help people understand it as well.”

The 2013 symposium will take place April 8-11 at The Broadmoor hotel. Now in its 29th year, the event normally fills local hotels to capacity and brings about 9,000 volunteers, business executives, international government leaders and space experts to the Springs.

But the sequester has thrown a wrench into the normally smooth planning process, Pulham said.

“We’re working on an individual basis — almost one registration at a time — as people try to figure out what they need to do to get here,” he said. “In some cases, we waive some of the fees; at other times we help people navigate their department’s budget process. It’s been an interesting year.”

The symposium, also a major networking event for companies to meet with military counterparts, costs $1,695 for industry, nonprofits and contractors until March 15. After that, the fees go up to $1,895.

Because the Pentagon already faced budget cuts before the sequester, the Space Foundation rolled back military fees to the 2010 level — $790. It’s $1,143 to attend the full-day cyber conference as well, or $395 to attend only the cyber conference for military. In addition, military members get free admission to one of the luncheons, while industry members pay extra.

“We expect Space Command to attend in their normally strong numbers,” Pulham said. “It helps that they are here in the Springs, so there’s no travel involved.”

The 50th Space Wing is located at Schriever Air Force Base, and routinely sends a contingent. Gen. William Shelton, commander of the Air Force Space Command, is a scheduled speaker.

“We have a tremendous commitment from our head government speakers,” Pulham said. “It’s not that people don’t want to be here, it’s just that they aren’t sure of their own rules for travel now.”

That uncertainty translates to the private sector as well, Pulham said. Corporate members have been slow to register this year, as they wait to see what effect the sequester might have on business.

But the budget cuts in place for government contracts and the military haven’t lowered the number of sponsors. Pulham said the Space Symposium has no more room for sponsors or exhibitors.

“We have 31 new companies at the exhibit hall this year,” he said. “And they’re from around the world — the Americas, Asia, Europe.”

International interest remains strong as well. Pulham said the symposium has a record number of international delegations interested in the future of space.

The confusion hasn’t stopped planning for the event, either. This year, Pulham said there was a strong emphasis on educating tomorrow’s astronauts and astrophysicists. He’s also working to have Dennis Tito speak at the symposium. Tito has proposed private funding to send a man and woman on a trip around Mars.

“There’s been a lot of interest in that,” Pulham said. “We’re planning an active discussion about the future of civil space programs and policies.”

But until April arrives, the Space Foundation staff will work to sign people up for the event — something that’s proving more difficult than usual.

“We’re spending about twice as much time on registration,” Pulham said. “It’s just a very confused environment right now. In the end, I think we’ll have slightly less than 9,000 people here, instead of the slightly more than 9,000 we had in recent years.”