NASA Administrator Charles Bolden said Wednesday during his first visit to Decatur’s United Launch Alliance facility that he expects Congress to avoid the Jan. 1 budgetary “fiscal cliff.”
That would be good news for NASA.
If Congress fails to reach a deal, sequestration would cut $1.5 billion from an annual NASA budget that already has dropped to $17.7 billion, from $18.4 billion in 2011.
“You would be foolish not to be nervous now,” Bolden said.
But even if a deal isn’t worked out, budgetary problems would not be immediate for the 1.6 million-square-foot ULA facility, President and CEO Michael Gass said.
“We’re fortunate at United Launch Alliance that we have a backlog of missions and contracts, so it won’t have the dramatic effect on us as it would if you were expecting a new program or an annual contract,” Gass said. “We’re not planning any immediate layoffs.”
ULA employs about 800 workers and has about 200 contractors.
Gass said sequestration did not constitute a “cliff” for ULA, but could cause problems after a year or so.
Bolden, a former astronaut, spoke to ULA employees and took a tour of the facility before meeting with the media. The tour focused in part on developments ULA is making, in conjunction with NASA, to prepare the Atlas V for a possible manned flight.
“ULA is partnering with two of our entrants in the commercial crew development program,” Bolden said of the competition. “To us, that’s really important. It gives you a certain sense of comfort because we know ULA. We know the product. It doesn’t give them any advantage, but it does make us comfortable to know we have people associated with and knowledgeable about the way we like to do things.”
The commercial crew program would replace the retired shuttle program in transporting astronauts to the International Space Station.
Gass said the modifications ULA needs to make on the Atlas V are relatively minor, but NASA funding and capsule development suggest the first manned launch would not be until 2016 or 2017.
“We’ve been flying critical national security and science payloads for decades,” Gass said. “We’re really learning the difference between crew safety and mission success. ... There’s a culture that’s different for human space flight that we have to learn.”
ULA has been working with the Defense Department on a “block buy,” in which the Air Force would commit to several years of ULA missions. Some in Congress oppose the program.
“I’m optimistic,” Gass said. “It’s about better buying practices, about buying things more efficiently. We try to encourage them to buy efficiently to help us lower our prices.”
Gass said the block buy — which is on hold while Congress debates sequestration — could directly benefit the Decatur plant.
“What that does for us and for this community is create the climate to invest,” Gass said. “If we have that stability, we’ll be investing in new products and new equipment into the next decade.”
Bolden said NASA will not participate in the decision on whether to authorize a block buy.
One of NASA’s highest profile missions recently was Curiosity, a rover now performing soil tests on Mars.
“I hope (ULA employees) are very proud every time someone mentions Curiosity,” Bolden said. “Had it not been for the work here, Curiosity would have never even started on its journey to Mars.”
He said the Curiosity mission already has been a success, but he expects the greatest scientific breakthroughs in the near future.
“We’ve not made any earth-shattering discoveries yet, to my knowledge, but I think the science team is very happy with what they’ve been finding,” Bolden said. “The true scientific discoveries with Curiosity will come as it starts its trek up Mount Sharp. That’s where it becomes an actual explorer. It’s going to look at the geologic history of Mars.”
Mount Sharp rises three miles from the center of Mars’ huge Gale Crater, where the car-size Curiosity rover touched down Aug. 5.
Bolden said NASA is buying three of the five Delta II rockets — smaller than the Delta IV and Atlas V — in ULA’s inventory. Gass said ULA has no immediate plans to re-start the Delta II line, “but we always stand ready.”
Bolden said he was impressed by his tour of the plant, the largest rocket factory in the United States.
“It’s an incredibly beautiful facility,” Bolden said. “The people are incredible. They seem to be fired up about what they are doing.”
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