Budget woes may mean schedule slips, employee furloughs for NASA

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NASA administrator Charles Bolden defended his case for fully funding the space agency's budget request of $17.7 billion in fiscal 2014 during congressional hearings this week.

NASA is funding major programmes "at the lowest level that we believe we can deliver on time," says Bolden. He attributed some past schedule slips to funding shortages. For example, first flights of the commercial crew programme to ferry astronauts and cargo to the International Space Station (ISS) have slipped from 2015 to 2018.

Crunched between the annual budget battles and a 10% cut imposed by sequestration, NASA is taking a hard look at what it cannot afford to do. Though it remaings the most well-funded space agency in the world, NASA is struggling to complete its three flagship projects - commercial crew, the space launch system (SLS) and James Webb space telescope (JWST) - while maintaining a plethora of smaller projects.

"We have made adjustments so it has not affected our programmes or our people just yet," says Bolden. "But we cannot do that in 2014. If we do not come out from under [the] sequester for the FY2014 budget, we will start furloughing people when that budget becomes effective."

Sequestration presents more urgent problems for certain key programmes. "It will definitely impact SLS, it will devastate commercial crew and cargo," says Bolden. "If we have sequester, all bets are off, and I'm going to come to you and tell you what we're dropping off the plate."

Legislators also questioned a line item in the FY2014 budget to fund a crewed mission to capture an asteroid and bring it into lunar orbit. Critics of the mission prefer destinations such as Mars or the moon. Bolden responded that a lunar flight would be "a factor of three" times more expensive than an asteroid mission.