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Sequestration forces NASA to hold up educational and outreach efforts

NASA says the tweets will continue despite a
NASA says the tweets will continue despite aNASA via Twitter

NASA is putting the brakes on its educational and public outreach efforts, due to the continuing standoff over the federal budget and the resulting sequestration of the agency's funds.

The cutbacks in NASA's activities, including social-media initiatives, were outlined on Friday in a pair of memos from NASA Headquarters in Washington. The independent SpaceRef website published both memos, including one that ordered a suspension and another that provided additional instructions for NASA's Communication Coordinating Council.

Automatic spending cuts are taking effect, at NASA and many other federal agencies, as the result of the failure by the White House and Congress to agree on a budget deal. Last month, NASA Administrator Charles Bolden told lawmakers that sequestration would reduce NASA's overall budget from the $17.8 billion that Congress approved last year to $16.9 billion.

The space agency already has cut back on travel and training expenses. As a result, some of the space agency's scientists and executives had to pass up this week's Lunar and Planetary Science Conference in Texas. The new directives extend the cutbacks to online, multimedia and social-media initiatives as well as publications.

Operational websites and social-media accounts were excluded from the suspension, however — which means existing Twitter accounts, including @NASA and @MarsCuriosity, can stay in business. NASA has rapidly expanded its online presence in the past couple of years, winning recognition from the Emmys, the Shorty Awards and the Webby Awards. Just this month, the Mars Curiosity mission's social-media team won the South by Southwest Interactive Award for best social-media campaign. 

Waivers were also granted for mission announcements, media events and products, breaking-news activities and responses to media inquiries. In an emailed response to NBC News' inquiry, NASA spokesman Bob Jacobs said additional guidance would be issued next week, addressing areas that would be exempt from the suspension.

"It's important to point out that it's a suspension, not a cancellation," Jacobs wrote. "The agency's budget for the fiscal year is more that $1 billion below the original request. We are taking prudent steps to ensure the resources expended on outreach activities are done so wisely.

"Mission activities and much of the existing news and information dissemination is not likely to be impacted, including our successful social media efforts," he said. "However, it is important in this constrained fiscal environment to pause and assess how the money is being spent on a wide variety of outreach activities, many of which are funded by independent projects and programs. We are not canceling anything yet. We are being financially responsible by pausing long enough to review activities before they go forward."

Update for 9 p.m. ET March 23: Folks have started a petition on the White House's "We the People" website, calling for a repeal of the sequestration cuts for education and public outreach. Although the sentiment is admirable, NASA's hands (and the White House's hands) may be tied by the rules that govern sequestration. It's important to note that all of the space agency's activities have to be cut back by the same percentage. It's just that in the case of education and public outreach, the memos that address the process for starting the cuts have now been made public. 

That being said, signing a White House petition is a great way to make your opinion known, and so is writing or calling your representatives in Congress.

More about sequestration's effects:

Alan Boyle is's science editor. Connect with the Cosmic Log community by "liking" the log's Facebook page, following @b0yle on Twitter and adding the Cosmic Log page to your Google+ presence. To keep up with Cosmic Log as well as's other stories about science and space, sign up for the Tech & Science newsletter, delivered to your email in-box every weekday. You can also check out "The Case for Pluto," my book about the controversial dwarf planet and the search for new worlds.