NASA faces 'era of declining budgets'

NASA and companies doing business with the space agency in the coming yearswill have to endure a "window of pain" as Congress continues to exert pressureon NASA's budget, according to a recent industry group report.

The report, presented last week at the 1999 Vision Conference sponsoredby the Government Electronics and Information Technology Association, outlineschallenges to doing business with NASA as it attempts to perform "better,faster and cheaper."

Kenton Ho, product line manager for TRW Inc.'s Space & Electronicsgroup, presented the report and said an era of declining budgets for NASAmeans tough choices for the agency when deciding which projects to pursue.

"NASA is trying to figure out how to get the most out of their budget dollars,"Ho told attendees at the conference. "We see that NASA is going to be facinga more and more difficult time in the budgetary process."

Ho's comments came as lawmakers in the Senate debated the space agency'sfiscal 2000 funding. A House version of the bill to fund NASA had trimmedalmost $1 billion from NASA's $13 billion-plus budget request. But a Senateversion of the bill would fund NASA closer to requested levels.

Ho cautioned vendors attending last week's conference that NASA contractorscan expect to see fewer dollars flowing out of NASA and into the privatesector in future years as the agency endures the effects of the congressionalbudget cuts. Congressional appropriators, operating under a 1997 budgetagreement with the president to cap spending and create a budget surplus,have turned to nondefense and nonsocial programs such as NASA's to cut costs.

When the most recent rounds of proposed cuts appeared this summer, NASAsupporters said the cuts would threaten the success of IT projects — includingone to develop a major information system for a study of the Earth — aswell as future IT innovations at the agency.

"There's nothing that would not be affected," a NASA spokesman saidearlier this year when members of the House proposed cuts to the agency'sbudget. "It's such a devastating cut."

"It appears as if our government is turning its back on space exploration,which is traditionally where the technology innovations have come first,"said Anne Pierce, director of programs at the National Space Society.

But despite the outcries, pressures such as continuing budget caps andbudgetary competition from other agencies, as well as declining public interestin the agency, may threaten the amount of dollars available for NASA, accordingto Ho.

"We predict NASA will still have a reduction in its budget," he said."That means tough choices will have to be made."

Regardless, NASA will continue to insist on highly skilled contractworkers, even though the agency may not have the national security demandsof the Defense Department, Ho said.

He added that NASA will base its future contracting decisions on howwell vendors perform, even though the concept of performance-based contractinghas yet to catch on fully at each of the 10 main NASA centers. "NASA isexploring ways to reward contractors for their performance," he said. "Butwe still see some reluctance to implement [performance-based contracting]at the center level."

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