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Editorial | Living with Sequestration

There’s a parallel to be drawn between the specter of a killer asteroid bearing down on Earth, something that’s gotten a lot of attention of late, and the indiscriminate U.S. federal budget cuts known as sequestration that took effect March 1.

In both cases — one a remote possibility, the other an immediate reality — authorities see disaster coming but are unable to prevent it.

But unlike the celestial doomsday scenario, where the rogue space rock is detected too late to mount an effective defense, there was more than enough time to avert sequestration, a misguided policy that was set in agonizingly slow motion by the White House and Congress over a year-and-a-half ago. Congress simply chose to do nothing as the sequestration deadline inched closer, while the White House shrugged its shoulders and pointed fingers.

It also turns out that sequestration, while certainly painful, is not quite the budgetary Armageddon that many U.S. government officials, particularly in the Department of Defense, made it out to be. Had the Pentagon reacted to the impending cuts with a solid contingency plan — as opposed to hyperbole and denial — it might not be furloughing workers at the moment.

But sequestration is not without adverse medium- to long-term consequences for the space enterprise. Depending on how much flexibility the U.S. Air Force is given to shift money among spending accounts, the service might be forced to stretch out some of its satellite development programs to accommodate reductions of roughly 8 percent. Some of the Air Force’s mature satellite production programs are under fixed-price contracts that might have to be renegotiated unless the service can find some way to maintain previously expected funding levels. In both cases the resulting delays will drive cost increases that offset any savings from sequestration.

Even if the Air Force seeks and wins congressional approval to reprogram funds to keep its major space hardware programs on track, that money has to come from somewhere, and one likely bill payer is other space activities.

During a March 19 congressional hearing called to assess the nation’s readiness to fend off an asteroid, Gen. William Shelton, commander of Air Force Space Command, said his budget will lose $500 million under sequestration, compromising its ability to track man-made space junk. He said the Air Force will not be able to operate its space surveillance assets at full capacity, which will degrade the accuracy of the service’s ever-changing catalog of Earth-orbiting objects that government and commercial satellite operators rely on for collision avoidance.

Scaling back space surveillance is the exact opposite of what the Air Force — and the White House — recognize must be done to deal effectively with the rapidly growing threat to space operations posed by congestion in the orbital environment.

Another negative, if less dramatic, impact of sequestration is the ban on so-called nonessential travel by Air Force and NASA officials, such as to professional conferences. This might provide some short-term savings, but sacrificed in the process are the interchanges, both formal and informal, between government and industry that help spur the innovation that now is more important than ever. Innovation often comes from the smaller companies, for which conferences are a primary avenue of access to government officials.

It is unclear whether these and other impacts will be limited to 2013 or will continue indefinitely as the Congress and the White House continue to play the blame game. Until the two sides manage to find a political face-saving way out, the Pentagon, along with NASA and the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), must operate under the assumption that sequestration is here to stay.

The good news is that space programs are so vital that they enjoy a measure of protection from sequestration’s ravages. Congress seems to get this, as evidenced by 2013 spending legislation that, while six months late, provides respectable funding levels for most military space programs. Lawmakers also singled out a NOAA weather satellite program for a significant increase even while holding the agency as a whole to its 2012 spending level.

But even if it’s not the end of the world, sequestration remains a terrible policy that should never have happened. If today’s politics-above-all-else ethic still permeates elected officialdom when a killer asteroid threat truly manifests itself, this planet is surely in a heap of trouble.

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