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WFIRST

NASA weighs delaying WFIRST to fund JWST overrun

WASHINGTON — NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine said July 25 that, in order to address the delays and cost overruns with the James Webb Space Telescope, the agency may seek to slow down development of another flagship astrophysics mission.

Testifying before the House Science Committee in the first half of a two-part hearing on JWST, Bridenstine suggested that slowing down work on the Wide-Field Infrared Survey Telescope (WFIRST) until after JWST is launched could be a way to deal with JWST’s increased cost while maintaining a “balanced portfolio” of large and small astrophysics programs.

“The idea of WFIRST presumed that JWST would be on orbit and delivering science,” he said. “So it is my recommendation that we move forward with WFIRST after we move forward with JWST.”

“It is true we can do some development now. I’m not saying that we need to shut down WFIRST, and we shouldn’t do it,” he added. “What I’m saying is there’s opportunity here.”

Current plans for WFIRST call for a launch in 2025, assuming full funding. That funding is uncertain at the moment, though, since the administration proposed cancelling WFIRST in its 2019 budget request. House and Senate versions of appropriations bills would keep the mission going, but the House bill offers $150 million versus $352 million in the Senate bill. The latter amount, NASA says, is what’s needed to keep the mission on schedule.

NASA spokesperson Felicia Chou said after the hearing that if WFIRST’s budget were to be cut to pay JWST’s cost overruns, that would have the effect of slowing the project down. Those cuts would take place in fiscal years 2020 and 2021, the years NASA has identified it needs approximately $490 million to cover additional JWST costs.

“It is within the range of possibilities that the reduction to WFIRST would be roughly one third of its budget in each of those years, and so the net delay to launch might be up to a few years,” she said.

Bridenstine said during the hearing that no decisions had been made on how to cover those additional JWST costs. “By the 2020 timeframe is when we’re going to need to have additional funds. So between now and then we’re going to have to make determinations,” he said. “Right now that process is underway.”

He said those decisions would consider the guidance from decadal surveys and a desire to maintain a balanced portfolio of programs. He specifically assured one member, Rep. Mo Brooks (R-Ala.), that the extra funding would not come out of human spaceflight programs, particularly the Space Launch System. “This is relevant to the Science Mission Directorate exclusively, and that’s where, at this point, we’ve had discussions about what are the options going forward,” Bridenstine said.

Committee members used the two-and-a-half-hour hearing to express their frustrations with this latest delay, noting that the original concept for the mission called for it to cost $500 million and launch in 2007, versus a current lifecycle cost of $9.6 billion and launch in 2021. “This is 19 times the original cost and a delay of 14 years,” said Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Texas), chairman of the committee. “It doesn’t get much worse than that.”

They directed some of that frustration at prime contractor Northrop Grumman for human errors that contributed to the latest delays. “Contractors will have to deliver on time and on budget. If they cannot, they should be penalized,” Smith said.

Bridenstine said they have some options for what Smith called “contractor accountability” for JWST. Northrop is not currently receiving an award fee on its cost-plus contract because of these delays, he said, and won’t be eligible for about half of the award fee it could earn once JWST is successfully launched and commissioned.

“Those potential award fees would add up to, if they were to maximize it, about $60 million. We have already taken off the table $28 million of that $60 million,” he said.

Tom Young, the chairman of the JWST independent review board and the hearing’s other witness, offered a different approach to the award fee issue. “If I had this problem, I would take all of the fees that currently exist,” he said, “and I’d put them all together in one lump sum, and I would have the criteria for getting them the quantity and quality of data returned by JWST after it’s on orbit.”

Members will get their opportunity to discuss contractor performance during the second half of the hearing July 26, when Northrop Grumman Chief Executive Wes Bush will testify with Young. The two-part hearing was necessitated by scheduling issues involving Bush and Bridenstine.

Members had little criticism, though, of Bridenstine, a former committee member who has been on the job at NASA for only three months. Some of his former colleagues expressed confidence that he would be able to get JWST back on track.

“Your legacy, I suspect, will be determined by how well you, working with all of the wonderful people at NASA and all the contractors, deliver on finishing James Webb,” said Rep. Frank Lucas (R-Okla.)

Original Link

NASA weighs delaying WFIRST to fund JWST overrun

WASHINGTON — NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine said July 25 that, in order to address the delays and cost overruns with the James Webb Space Telescope, the agency may seek to slow down development of another flagship astrophysics mission.

Testifying before the House Science Committee in the first half of a two-part hearing on JWST, Bridenstine suggested that slowing down work on the Wide-Field Infrared Survey Telescope (WFIRST) until after JWST is launched could be a way to deal with JWST’s increased cost while maintaining a “balanced portfolio” of large and small astrophysics programs.

“The idea of WFIRST presumed that JWST would be on orbit and delivering science,” he said. “So it is my recommendation that we move forward with WFIRST after we move forward with JWST.”

“It is true we can do some development now. I’m not saying that we need to shut down WFIRST, and we shouldn’t do it,” he added. “What I’m saying is there’s opportunity here.”

Current plans for WFIRST call for a launch in 2025, assuming full funding. That funding is uncertain at the moment, though, since the administration proposed cancelling WFIRST in its 2019 budget request. House and Senate versions of appropriations bills would keep the mission going, but the House bill offers $150 million versus $352 million in the Senate bill. The latter amount, NASA says, is what’s needed to keep the mission on schedule.

NASA spokesperson Felicia Chou said after the hearing that if WFIRST’s budget were to be cut to pay JWST’s cost overruns, that would have the effect of slowing the project down. Those cuts would take place in fiscal years 2020 and 2021, the years NASA has identified it needs approximately $490 million to cover additional JWST costs.

“It is within the range of possibilities that the reduction to WFIRST would be roughly one third of its budget in each of those years, and so the net delay to launch might be up to a few years,” she said.

Bridenstine said during the hearing that no decisions had been made on how to cover those additional JWST costs. “By the 2020 timeframe is when we’re going to need to have additional funds. So between now and then we’re going to have to make determinations,” he said. “Right now that process is underway.”

He said those decisions would consider the guidance from decadal surveys and a desire to maintain a balanced portfolio of programs. He specifically assured one member, Rep. Mo Brooks (R-Ala.), that the extra funding would not come out of human spaceflight programs, particularly the Space Launch System. “This is relevant to the Science Mission Directorate exclusively, and that’s where, at this point, we’ve had discussions about what are the options going forward,” Bridenstine said.

Committee members used the two-and-a-half-hour hearing to express their frustrations with this latest delay, noting that the original concept for the mission called for it to cost $500 million and launch in 2007, versus a current lifecycle cost of $9.6 billion and launch in 2021. “This is 19 times the original cost and a delay of 14 years,” said Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Texas), chairman of the committee. “It doesn’t get much worse than that.”

They directed some of that frustration at prime contractor Northrop Grumman for human errors that contributed to the latest delays. “Contractors will have to deliver on time and on budget. If they cannot, they should be penalized,” Smith said.

Bridenstine said they have some options for what Smith called “contractor accountability” for JWST. Northrop is not currently receiving an award fee on its cost-plus contract because of these delays, he said, and won’t be eligible for about half of the award fee it could earn once JWST is successfully launched and commissioned.

“Those potential award fees would add up to, if they were to maximize it, about $60 million. We have already taken off the table $28 million of that $60 million,” he said.

Tom Young, the chairman of the JWST independent review board and the hearing’s other witness, offered a different approach to the award fee issue. “If I had this problem, I would take all of the fees that currently exist,” he said, “and I’d put them all together in one lump sum, and I would have the criteria for getting them the quantity and quality of data returned by JWST after it’s on orbit.”

Members will get their opportunity to discuss contractor performance during the second half of the hearing July 26, when Northrop Grumman Chief Executive Wes Bush will testify with Young. The two-part hearing was necessitated by scheduling issues involving Bush and Bridenstine.

Members had little criticism, though, of Bridenstine, a former committee member who has been on the job at NASA for only three months. Some of his former colleagues expressed confidence that he would be able to get JWST back on track.

“Your legacy, I suspect, will be determined by how well you, working with all of the wonderful people at NASA and all the contractors, deliver on finishing James Webb,” said Rep. Frank Lucas (R-Okla.)

Original Link

NASA studying potential additional cuts in WFIRST

WASHINGTON — A NASA astrophysics mission that passed a key milestone after making cost reductions is studying potential additional cuts to one of its instruments.

At a meeting July 24 of NASA’s Astrophysics Advisory Committee here, Jeff Kruk, project scientist for the Wide-Field Infrared Survey Telescope (WFIRST), said the project was asked by NASA Headquarters to study additional ways it could reduce costs for the spacecraft’s coronagraph instrument, which has already been downgraded to a technology demonstration.

“The only other shoe that might drop is that we’ve been asked to provide a study to headquarters on additional possible cost reductions to the coronagraph,” he said. “It’s not that we’ve been directed to do that, but we’ve been asked to present options.” That study is due late this year.

Kruk didn’t discuss what those additional cost reductions to the instrument might entail. The mission previously made a number of changes to the coronagraph, reclassifying it as a technology demonstration rather than a full-fledged science instrument, as part of an effort last year to reduce the mission’s estimated lifecycle cost to $3.2 billion.

Those earlier cuts to the instrument, which precisely blocks light from individual stars to be able to directly observe dust disks or planets orbiting those stars, will reduce the number of masks and filters used by the instrument to a “minimum set” that can demonstrate the instrument’s technology while still being able to do some science.

“We have been trying to take an expansive view of technology demonstration,” he said. “We felt that the best way to actually demonstrate technology was to do science with it.”

Those earlier cuts, mandated by NASA after an independent review found that WFIRST was several hundred million dollars above its estimated cost of $3.2 billion, have allowed the mission to get back under that cost cap and continue. The mission passed a series of reviews in May that allowed it to proceed into Phase B of its development.

“For those of us who have been doing concept studies since about the year 2000 in one form or another, this is an amazing place to be,” Kruk said of moving into Phase B.

The mission still faces some fiscal and other issues. The administration’s fiscal year 2019 budget request proposed cancelling WFIRST. That proposal, widely opposed by astronomers, has been rejected in appropriations bills making their way through the House and Senate that offer at least some funding for the mission.

However, there are significant differences between the two funding bills. The House bill provides $150 million for WFIRST in 2019, while the Senate version offers $352 million. The latter figure is what’s needed to keep WFIRST on schedule for a mid-2020s launch, said Paul Hertz, director of NASA’s astrophysics division, during a presentation earlier in the day to the committee.

WFIRST has also lost some capability to its primary instrument, a wide-field imager. Kruk said that the Canadian Space Agency notified the project in the spring that it will not be able to contribute the Integral Field Channel, an element of that instrument that would perform spectra on discrete parts of the instrument’s field of view.

“This had been one of the central parts of the supernova program,” he said. “That is a significant change.” The instrument would have provided a “reasonably high quality” spectrum of each supernova studied to measure its redshift, or distance. Kruk said there was a “plausible path” to obtain that data instead through other observations of the supernova and its host galaxy.

NASA was moving ahead with several other potential international partnerships with Europe and Japan to provide elements of the spacecraft. None have been finalized yet, and Hertz said the overall value of those contributions will be on the order of $50 to 100 million.

Original Link

NASA studying potential additional cuts in WFIRST

WASHINGTON — A NASA astrophysics mission that passed a key milestone after making cost reductions is studying potential additional cuts to one of its instruments.

At a meeting July 24 of NASA’s Astrophysics Advisory Committee here, Jeff Kruk, project scientist for the Wide-Field Infrared Survey Telescope (WFIRST), said the project was asked by NASA Headquarters to study additional ways it could reduce costs for the spacecraft’s coronagraph instrument, which has already been downgraded to a technology demonstration.

“The only other shoe that might drop is that we’ve been asked to provide a study to headquarters on additional possible cost reductions to the coronagraph,” he said. “It’s not that we’ve been directed to do that, but we’ve been asked to present options.” That study is due late this year.

Kruk didn’t discuss what those additional cost reductions to the instrument might entail. The mission previously made a number of changes to the coronagraph, reclassifying it as a technology demonstration rather than a full-fledged science instrument, as part of an effort last year to reduce the mission’s estimated lifecycle cost to $3.2 billion.

Those earlier cuts to the instrument, which precisely blocks light from individual stars to be able to directly observe dust disks or planets orbiting those stars, will reduce the number of masks and filters used by the instrument to a “minimum set” that can demonstrate the instrument’s technology while still being able to do some science.

“We have been trying to take an expansive view of technology demonstration,” he said. “We felt that the best way to actually demonstrate technology was to do science with it.”

Those earlier cuts, mandated by NASA after an independent review found that WFIRST was several hundred million dollars above its estimated cost of $3.2 billion, have allowed the mission to get back under that cost cap and continue. The mission passed a series of reviews in May that allowed it to proceed into Phase B of its development.

“For those of us who have been doing concept studies since about the year 2000 in one form or another, this is an amazing place to be,” Kruk said of moving into Phase B.

The mission still faces some fiscal and other issues. The administration’s fiscal year 2019 budget request proposed cancelling WFIRST. That proposal, widely opposed by astronomers, has been rejected in appropriations bills making their way through the House and Senate that offer at least some funding for the mission.

However, there are significant differences between the two funding bills. The House bill provides $150 million for WFIRST in 2019, while the Senate version offers $352 million. The latter figure is what’s needed to keep WFIRST on schedule for a mid-2020s launch, said Paul Hertz, director of NASA’s astrophysics division, during a presentation earlier in the day to the committee.

WFIRST has also lost some capability to its primary instrument, a wide-field imager. Kruk said that the Canadian Space Agency notified the project in the spring that it will not be able to contribute the Integral Field Channel, an element of that instrument that would perform spectra on discrete parts of the instrument’s field of view.

“This had been one of the central parts of the supernova program,” he said. “That is a significant change.” The instrument would have provided a “reasonably high quality” spectrum of each supernova studied to measure its redshift, or distance. Kruk said there was a “plausible path” to obtain that data instead through other observations of the supernova and its host galaxy.

NASA was moving ahead with several other potential international partnerships with Europe and Japan to provide elements of the spacecraft. None have been finalized yet, and Hertz said the overall value of those contributions will be on the order of $50 to 100 million.

Original Link

NASA studying potential additional cuts in WFIRST

WASHINGTON — A NASA astrophysics mission that passed a key milestone after making cost reductions is studying potential additional cuts to one of its instruments.

At a meeting July 24 of NASA’s Astrophysics Advisory Committee here, Jeff Kruk, project scientist for the Wide-Field Infrared Survey Telescope (WFIRST), said the project was asked by NASA Headquarters to study additional ways it could reduce costs for the spacecraft’s coronagraph instrument, which has already been downgraded to a technology demonstration.

“The only other shoe that might drop is that we’ve been asked to provide a study to headquarters on additional possible cost reductions to the coronagraph,” he said. “It’s not that we’ve been directed to do that, but we’ve been asked to present options.” That study is due late this year.

Kruk didn’t discuss what those additional cost reductions to the instrument might entail. The mission previously made a number of changes to the coronagraph, reclassifying it as a technology demonstration rather than a full-fledged science instrument, as part of an effort last year to reduce the mission’s estimated lifecycle cost to $3.2 billion.

Those earlier cuts to the instrument, which precisely blocks light from individual stars to be able to directly observe dust disks or planets orbiting those stars, will reduce the number of masks and filters used by the instrument to a “minimum set” that can demonstrate the instrument’s technology while still being able to do some science.

“We have been trying to take an expansive view of technology demonstration,” he said. “We felt that the best way to actually demonstrate technology was to do science with it.”

Those earlier cuts, mandated by NASA after an independent review found that WFIRST was several hundred million dollars above its estimated cost of $3.2 billion, have allowed the mission to get back under that cost cap and continue. The mission passed a series of reviews in May that allowed it to proceed into Phase B of its development.

“For those of us who have been doing concept studies since about the year 2000 in one form or another, this is an amazing place to be,” Kruk said of moving into Phase B.

The mission still faces some fiscal and other issues. The administration’s fiscal year 2019 budget request proposed cancelling WFIRST. That proposal, widely opposed by astronomers, has been rejected in appropriations bills making their way through the House and Senate that offer at least some funding for the mission.

However, there are significant differences between the two funding bills. The House bill provides $150 million for WFIRST in 2019, while the Senate version offers $352 million. The latter figure is what’s needed to keep WFIRST on schedule for a mid-2020s launch, said Paul Hertz, director of NASA’s astrophysics division, during a presentation earlier in the day to the committee.

WFIRST has also lost some capability to its primary instrument, a wide-field imager. Kruk said that the Canadian Space Agency notified the project in the spring that it will not be able to contribute the Integral Field Channel, an element of that instrument that would perform spectra on discrete parts of the instrument’s field of view.

“This had been one of the central parts of the supernova program,” he said. “That is a significant change.” The instrument would have provided a “reasonably high quality” spectrum of each supernova studied to measure its redshift, or distance. Kruk said there was a “plausible path” to obtain that data instead through other observations of the supernova and its host galaxy.

NASA was moving ahead with several other potential international partnerships with Europe and Japan to provide elements of the spacecraft. None have been finalized yet, and Hertz said the overall value of those contributions will be on the order of $50 to 100 million.

Original Link

NASA studying potential additional cuts in WFIRST

WASHINGTON — A NASA astrophysics mission that passed a key milestone after making cost reductions is studying potential additional cuts to one of its instruments.

At a meeting July 24 of NASA’s Astrophysics Advisory Committee here, Jeff Kruk, project scientist for the Wide-Field Infrared Survey Telescope (WFIRST), said the project was asked by NASA Headquarters to study additional ways it could reduce costs for the spacecraft’s coronagraph instrument, which has already been downgraded to a technology demonstration.

“The only other shoe that might drop is that we’ve been asked to provide a study to headquarters on additional possible cost reductions to the coronagraph,” he said. “It’s not that we’ve been directed to do that, but we’ve been asked to present options.” That study is due late this year.

Kruk didn’t discuss what those additional cost reductions to the instrument might entail. The mission previously made a number of changes to the coronagraph, reclassifying it as a technology demonstration rather than a full-fledged science instrument, as part of an effort last year to reduce the mission’s estimated lifecycle cost to $3.2 billion.

Those earlier cuts to the instrument, which precisely blocks light from individual stars to be able to directly observe dust disks or planets orbiting those stars, will reduce the number of masks and filters used by the instrument to a “minimum set” that can demonstrate the instrument’s technology while still being able to do some science.

“We have been trying to take an expansive view of technology demonstration,” he said. “We felt that the best way to actually demonstrate technology was to do science with it.”

Those earlier cuts, mandated by NASA after an independent review found that WFIRST was several hundred million dollars above its estimated cost of $3.2 billion, have allowed the mission to get back under that cost cap and continue. The mission passed a series of reviews in May that allowed it to proceed into Phase B of its development.

“For those of us who have been doing concept studies since about the year 2000 in one form or another, this is an amazing place to be,” Kruk said of moving into Phase B.

The mission still faces some fiscal and other issues. The administration’s fiscal year 2019 budget request proposed cancelling WFIRST. That proposal, widely opposed by astronomers, has been rejected in appropriations bills making their way through the House and Senate that offer at least some funding for the mission.

However, there are significant differences between the two funding bills. The House bill provides $150 million for WFIRST in 2019, while the Senate version offers $352 million. The latter figure is what’s needed to keep WFIRST on schedule for a mid-2020s launch, said Paul Hertz, director of NASA’s astrophysics division, during a presentation earlier in the day to the committee.

WFIRST has also lost some capability to its primary instrument, a wide-field imager. Kruk said that the Canadian Space Agency notified the project in the spring that it will not be able to contribute the Integral Field Channel, an element of that instrument that would perform spectra on discrete parts of the instrument’s field of view.

“This had been one of the central parts of the supernova program,” he said. “That is a significant change.” The instrument would have provided a “reasonably high quality” spectrum of each supernova studied to measure its redshift, or distance. Kruk said there was a “plausible path” to obtain that data instead through other observations of the supernova and its host galaxy.

NASA was moving ahead with several other potential international partnerships with Europe and Japan to provide elements of the spacecraft. None have been finalized yet, and Hertz said the overall value of those contributions will be on the order of $50 to 100 million.

Original Link

Bridenstine offers senators reassurances on NASA programs

NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine told Senate appropriators May 23 that NASA was committed to a balance of science and exploration missions. Credit: NASA/Joel Kowsky

ARCADIA, Calif. — In his first congressional testimony since becoming NASA administrator a month ago, Jim Bridenstine sought to reassure Senate appropriators about the status of several agency programs threatened with cancellation, as well as his own views on climate change.

Appearing before the Senate Appropriations Committee’s commerce, justice and science subcommittee May 23, Bridenstine said he would seek a balance among the agency’s priorities in science and exploration, including committing to developing a number of missions that had been targeted for cancellation.

“We’re going to the moon and we’re going to Mars, but we’re not taking our eyes off the so many other critical, important missions of NASA,” he said, “to include Earth science, heliophysics, astrophysics and planetary science.”

Asked by Sen. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) about the status of Earth science missions proposed for cancellation in the 2019 budget request, Bridenstine said NASA was reconsidering the fate of two of them, the Climate Absolute Radiance and Refractivity Observatory (CLARREO) Pathfinder instrument for the International Space Station and the Plankton, Aerosol, Cloud, ocean Ecosystem (PACE) spacecraft, based on the findings of the latest Earth science decadal survey published in January.

“That decadal survey indicated that CLARREO and, as you mentioned, PACE, are high priorities for the National Academy of Sciences,” he said. “What we’re doing right now with the Earth science division of the Science Mission Directorate is that we are evaluating that decadal survey, trying to make sure we’re covering all the science that they have called for us to cover.”

Bridenstine reiterated comments he made at a NASA town hall meeting May 17 where he said NASA would go ahead with the launch of the Orbiting Carbon Observatory 3 instrument to the ISS next January, even though that project was also slated for cancellation in the proposed budget.

He said that, despite the lack of funding for a grant program called Carbon Monitoring System in the final 2018 spending bill, NASA was committed to doing research in climate change topics. “Your NASA is 100 percent committed to understanding the carbon cycle, which is an extremely high priority that comes from the decadal surveys,” he said.

In a rapid-fire, but not contentious, exchange with Sen. Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii), Bridenstine said he believed that humans were the leading contributor to global climate change, a view he acknowledged was an “evolution” from past statements.

“The National Climate Assessment that includes NASA and the Department of Energy and NOAA has clearly stated that it is extremely likely that human activity is the dominant cause of global warming, and I have no reason to doubt the science that comes from that,” he said.

In astrophysics, Bridenstine said that an independent review panel was still working on its assessment of the James Webb Space Telescope, including whether its latest delays will push the mission over a cost cap of $8 billion set by Congress several years ago. He noted that any financial impact of those delays should be minimal in 2019, as NASA will transfer money budgeted for spacecraft operations to its development instead.

He emphasized he was committed to completing and launching JWST even if it does exceed that cost cap, which would require formal congressional reauthorization for the mission. “We have spent so much money and we have come so far and we are so close, that it’s important that we do that,” he said. Asked by Van Hollen if he was “100 percent committed” to completing JWST, Bridenstine responded, “Without question.”

Bridenstine said that he wants to avoid similar problems with the next astrophysics flagship mission, the Wide-Field Infrared Survey Telescope (WFIRST), which the administration proposed cancelling in its 2019 budget request. Bridenstine said last week at the NASA town hall meeting that he felt it was likely the mission would continue.

“We are looking at what the costs are going to be going forward for WFIRST, and we’re committed to not have the same thing happen to WFIRST that happened to James Webb,” he said.

Bridenstine suggested that, in the future, NASA should shift its focus from those flagship-class missions to smaller spacecraft. “When we think about decadal surveys in the future, we might want to consider maybe distributing the risk among more smaller projects rather than one massive project that can clobber an entire division within the NASA budget,” he said.

The only area where Bridenstine faced criticism from senators was the proposal in the 2019 budget to close NASA’s education office. The 2018 request tried to do the same, only to be broadly rejected by Congress. Senators objected to the move because of the key role they see NASA playing in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) education.

“It eliminates a significant portion of that STEM education role for NASA, something that I indicated to you that I find objectionable,” said Sen. Jerry Moran (R-Kan.), chairman of the subcommittee, referring to a previous conversation he had with Bridenstine about the budget proposal.

“I continue to be frustrated that the administration continues to call for the elimination of NASA’s Office of Education,” said Sen. Shelley Moore Capito (R-W.V.)

Bridenstine responded that NASA has been considering renaming that office the “Office of STEM Engagement” to avoid perceptions that it might duplicate work done by agencies like the Department of Education. “We are committed to education, we are committed to inspiration. I believe in it 100 percent,” he said. “NASA will do that regardless of that particular budget line.”

The hearing, which lasted less than an hour, did not bring up many agency programs that have been hot-button topics in the past, like the Space Launch System, Orion or commercial crew. Senators also did not discuss NASA’s lunar exploration plans in the 2019 budget request, like development of the Lunar Orbital Platform-Gateway, or the future of the ISS after 2025.

Bridenstine won praise from Schatz and Van Hollen, the two Democrats who participated at the hearing, despite the fact that they and other Senate Democrats all voted against his nomination last month.

“I just want to recognize your evolution on this issue,” Schatz said of Bridenstine’s comments on climate change. “I have come to the conclusion that this is a true evolution, that you respect the people with whom you work, you respect the science.”

Moran said his subcommittee would mark up an appropriations bill that funds NASA and other agencies under its jurisdiction on June 12. The full committee will take up the bill June 14.

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Bridenstine optimistic WFIRST will avoid cancellation

NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine speaks at an agency town hall meeting at NASA Headquarters May 17. Credit: NASA/Bill Ingalls

WASHINGTON — As House appropriators approved a spending bill May 17 that partially restores funding for a NASA astrophysics mission slated for cancellation, the agency’s administrator said he was “90 percent” confident that the mission will continue.

Speaking at a town hall meeting at NASA Headquarters, Jim Bridenstine said that despite being targeted for cancellation in the administration’s fiscal year 2019 budget request, he expected the Wide-Field Infrared Survey Telescope (WFIRST) to win funding from Congress and continue.

“The bottom line is that House appropriators are looking at funding it, and I would imagine that the Senate would probably follow,” he said. “I think WFIRST is going to continue to go forward. If I had a crystal ball, I’d say there’s a 90 percent chance of that.”

The administration’s request, issued in February prior to Bridenstine being confirmed as NASA administrator, offered no money for WFIRST, citing a desire to spend money previously planned for it on other programs. At the time, WFIRST was working to reduce its estimated cost to $3.2 billion after an independent review board last fall found that it was several hundred million dollars over that estimate.

House appropriators, in a report accompanying their commerce, justice and science (CJS) spending bill released May 16, instead offered $150 million for WFIRST. That is the same amount that the mission received in fiscal year 2018, but only half the $302 million NASA’s 2018 budget request estimated WFIRST would need in 2019.

Bridenstine said that NASA would have to work to keep WFIRST costs down, noting the overruns on the James Webb Space Telescope. “When we think about WFIRST, we need to think about how we got where we are with the James Webb and make sure we don’t repeat that,” he said. “I’ve got to be committed to preventing that from happening. If you know anything about this president, it’s on budget and under time.”

He hinted that he would support smaller missions over large strategic, or flagship, missions like JWST or WFIRST. “If we can do smaller missions with multiple satellites, then any one of them that runs over doesn’t clobber the decadal [survey] not only for this decade but also the next decade,” he said. He didn’t address how the scientific questions that, in many cases, require the large apertures or instrumentation associated with flagship missions could be done with smaller telescopes.

As Bridenstine spoke, the House Appropriations Committee marked up the CJS spending bill. The committee favorably reported the bill 32–19 after a five-hour session, without making major changes to the NASA provisions of the bill.

Only one amendment addressing NASA programs was debated during the session, and at the very end. Rep. Dutch Ruppersberger (D-Md.) introduced an amendment to secure $161 million for the Plankton, Aerosol, Cloud, ocean Ecosystem (PACE) Earth science mission, one of four targeted for cancellation in the administration’s request. He cited in particular the importance of the mission in monitoring the environment of the Chesapeake Bay region in his statement supporting PACE.

Ruppersberger, though, withdrew the amendment. “I just wanted to get it on the record that this is an important program for NASA,” he said. Rep. John Culberson (R-Texas), chairman of the CJS subcommittee, said he would work with Ruppersberger in the weeks ahead to address his concerns about funding the mission.

At the town hall meeting, Bridenstine spoke up in support of another Earth science mission targeted for cancellation in the 2019 budget request, the Orbiting Carbon Observatory (OCO) 3 instrument being developed for the International Space Station. “My understanding is that, in January, we’re going to launch it,” he said. “It’s not been cut. In fact, it’s going to be on orbit very, very soon.”

Bridenstine also reiterated that he believes the Earth is warming, with humans playing a significant role. “I don’t deny the consensus that the climate it changing. In fact, I fully believe and know that the climate is changing. I also know that we, human beings, are contributing to it in a major way” with carbon dioxide emissions. “That greenhouse gas is warming the planet. That is absolutely happening and we are responsible for it.”

Bridenstine made similar comments at his Senate confirmation hearing last November. “Human activity absolutely is a contributor to the climate change that we are currently seeing,” he said then, although he declined to say if it was the primary cause. He didn’t explicitly state at the town hall meeting that human activity was the primary cause for climate change, only a major one.

The appropriations bill that the House ultimately passes with have to be reconciled with a Senate bill yet to be developed. Senate appropriators are scheduled to hold a hearing on NASA’s budget proposal May 23 and take up their version of a CJS spending bill the week of June 11.

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Astronomers resist NASA push to delay astrophysics decadal survey

While NASA has suggested delaying the next astrophysics decadal survey to incorporate science results from JWST, many astronomers want to stick to the current schedule. Credit: NASA artist’s concept

WASHINGTON — With uncertainty about the future of two large space telescopes, NASA is continuing to suggest that the next decadal survey for astrophysics be postponed, a move opposed by many astronomers.

Recently, the Cosmic Origins Program Analysis Group, one of three advisory groups chartered by NASA to support the agency’s astrophysics program, sent out a questionnaire to astronomers asking for their thoughts about delaying the next survey, currently scheduled for release in late 2020.

The questionnaire states that NASA officials, including Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator for science, “are concerned that the next decadal survey committee may not be able to effectively prioritize missions in the next decade due to uncertainties in the status of JWST and WFIRST.” A two-year delay of that study, they argued, would mitigate those concerns, but they added they are open to alternatives.

The decadal survey identifies priorities in astrophysics research and prioritizes both ground-based and space-based observatories to carry out that work. Of particular interest is what the survey identifies as the top-priority flagship, or large, mission for the next decade, missions in the past that have includes the James Webb Space Telescope and Wide-Field Infrared Survey Telescope (WFIRST).

The current schedule calls for starting the next decadal survey, known as Astro2020, around the end of this year with the selection of a chair of the committee that leads the study. That schedule would lead to the completion and release of the report by late 2020.

That schedule was intended to accommodate earlier schedules for JWST, which was to launch in October 2018. The early science the telescope performed could then be incorporated in the Astro2020 committee’s work to refine its priorities. With JWST now scheduled to launch around May of 2020, that is no longer possible under the current schedule.

WFIRST, the top priority in the previous decadal survey released in 2010, is also shrouded in uncertainty. The administration proposed cancelling the mission in its fiscal year 2019 budget request, even as the project was incorporating revisions to lower its estimated cost to $3.2 billion.

Immediately after NASA announced the latest delay in JWST, Zurbuchen proposed delaying the Astro2020 study by two years. At a May 2 meeting of the National Academies’ Space Studies Board, he reiterated his desire to delay the decadal to avoid a “missed decade” in astrophysics.

“I think it will be easier to do after Webb flies and is successful,” he said. “It’s very hard to do a visionary and a great decadal while half the decade is already allocated for, and some of the big strategic missions have not cleared the queue.”

Paul Hertz, director of NASA’s astrophysics division, offered a similar assessment at the meeting. “NASA’s highest priority isn’t to delay the decadal survey,” he said. Instead, he said the agency’s priority was an “ambitious” survey “that provides the government with the priorities we need to lead the world in doing astrophysics in space.”

Many astronomers have no desire to delay Astro2020. “We have very good knowledge of what to expect when we get on orbit” with JWST, said Marcie Rieke, co-chair of the Committee on Astronomy and Astrophysics, at the Space Studies Board meeting May 2.

On JWST’s current launch schedule of May 2020, she said, the first “early release science” results from the telescope would be published in late 2020, around the time Astro2020 is released. “When you think about that, that’s very nice timing,” she said. “If you have a decadal survey that projects doing more big stuff, but you can show gorgeous results from the one you just finished, that’s a nice sales tactic.”

Any decision to delay Astro2020 would have to be coordinated with other agencies that support the study, such as the National Science Foundation, which uses it for planning ground-based observatories. However, shortly after NASA announced the latest JWST delay, an NSF official said the decadal should remain on schedule.

“We’re going to have to have some more discussion among the three funding agencies,” which includes the Department of Energy, Rieke said May 2. “The NSF has made clear that they would like to start on time. Anecdotal discussions among various astronomers imply that astronomers would like to move ahead and start on roughly the current schedule.”

Zurbuchen said he would follow the desires of the astronomical community regarding the schedule for Astro2020. “At the end, the decadal is the community’s decadal,” he said. “I will follow what the community says.”

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NASA missions press ahead despite budget uncertainty

NASA is continuing work on the WFIRST mission as Congress debates whether to accept the administration’s budget proposal for fiscal year 2019 that proposes to cancel it. Credit: NASA

WASHINGTON — As House appropriators prepare to take up a spending bill that funds NASA, some programs proposed for cancellation are pressing ahead despite fiscal uncertainty that one scientist described as “psychologically damaging.”

The commerce, justice and science subcommittee of the House Appropriations Committee is scheduled to mark up its fiscal year 2019 spending bill May 9. That bill includes funding for NASA, as well as the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, National Science Foundation and other agencies.

The markup comes nearly three months after the White House issued its budget proposal for 2019, which offered $19.9 billion for NASA but included the cancellation of the Wide-Field Infrared Survey Telescope (WFIRST), the next large astrophysics mission after the James Webb Space Telescope. It also proposed to terminate the same four Earth science missions the administration sought to end, unsuccessfully, in its 2018 budget request.

Among those four Earth science projects is the Plankton, Aerosol, Cloud, ocean Ecosystem (PACE) mission, a spacecraft planned for launch in 2022 that will study ocean and atmospheric conditions. While proposed for cancellation in 2018, Congress ultimately provided $147 million for the mission in the omnibus spending bill approved in March.

“We’re right on schedule. There’s been no slip,” said Lorraine Remer of the University of Maryland Baltimore County, who serves as deputy science team lead for PACE, during a May 3 meeting of the National Academies’ Space Studies Board here. “We’re moving forward.”

Despite the technical progress on the mission, though, she acknowledged that the budget uncertainty created by being targeted for cancellation in two straight years has taken a toll. “It’s psychologically damaging. It comes out and you go, ‘Oh, why am I doing this?’” she said of the budget proposals.

NASA’s response to the proposals, she said, has been to advise the team to “just work harder” while the budget process plays out. “I think that was a good direction, and we went forward and did that,” she said.

She warned, though, that continued budget uncertainly could affect other aspects of the mission’s development. “The agency is going to have difficulty committing to long-term planning here,” she said. “This is going to show up in terms of the ability to release competitions” for various aspects of the mission.

WFIRST, by comparison, is facing cancellation for the first time. The proposal to end the mission, still in its early stages of development, was surprising to much of the astronomical community as it came shortly after the project worked to reduce its estimated cost to $3.2 billion.

Congress, in the 2018 omnibus spending bill, provided $150 million for WFIRST, which many interpreted as a rebuke to the administration’s proposal even though Congress had yet to take up the 2019 budget. However, Congress passed the 2018 omnibus spending bill just days before NASA revealed another delay, and potential cost overrun, for JWST, complicating the future of WFIRST.

As with PACE, work on WFIRST is continuing for 2018 as the appropriations process for 2019 plays out in Congress. The mission’s next major review, for Key Decision Point B, is scheduled for May 22, which will allow it go into Phase B of its development.

“We were funded fully through FY ’18,” said Jeff Kruk, WFIRST project scientist, at the Space Studies Board meeting May 3. “We have to be ready to proceed should Congress decide to continue funding the mission. The only way we will meet the cost cap is if we stay on schedule.”

It’s unlikely Congress will complete work on its fiscal year 2019 spending bills by the time the fiscal year begins Oct. 1. As in past years, Congress will need to pass one or more stopgap spending bills, known as continuing resolutions (CRs), to fund the government at 2018 levels for weeks or months.

Paul Hertz, director of NASA’s astrophysics division, said at the meeting that the funding of WFIRST after Oct. 1 will depend on the cues it gets from Congress as the House and Senate mark up their separate spending bills.

“We are given some latitude on how to allocate the funding that is given to us” under a CR, he said. “We will take into account the markups that happen this summer in the appropriations committees. If those markups indicate that WFIRST is highly likely to be in the ’19 appropriation, we will request funding to continue WFIRST under a CR.” That would not be the case, he added, if the House and Senate signal an unwillingness to fund the mission.

“Unfortunately, WFIRST is now in a similar situation to PACE,” he added. “The direction I have given the project is that we have received our FY ’18 appropriation, and that their direction is to spend it working as hard and as fast as they can to stay on the path that leads to staying within the cost cap.”

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GAO warns of worsening cost and schedule performance on NASA programs

The Space Launch System and its associated ground systems contributed to growing cost and schedule issues with NASA’s major programs, according to a May 1 GAO report. Credit: NASA

WASHINGTON — NASA’s cost and performance on major programs has “deteriorated” significantly in the last year according to a report May 1 by the U.S. Government Accountability Office.

The report, its tenth annual assessment of the agency’s major human and robotic programs under development, found that those programs had an average launch delay of 12 months, the largest GAO had measured over the last decade, and cost growth of at least 18.8 percent.

That cost increase is much less than annual cost growth of more than 45 percent seen earlier in the decade. However, it marks the end of several years of declining cost growth. The report added it could not accurately gauge cost growth because of a lack of an updated cost estimate for the Orion spacecraft, which accounts for 22 percent of overall agency development costs.

“The cost and schedule performance of NASA’s portfolio of major projects has deteriorated since last year,” the report stated.

The GAO attributed most of the cost and schedule growth in the last year to four projects: the Space Launch System, Exploration Ground Systems, Mars 2020 and Space Network Ground Segment Sustainment (SGSS), an upgrade to ground systems used to communicate with NASA spacecraft. Those projects accounted for $638 million of a net cost increase of $646.7 million among NASA projects in development in 2017, and 59 of 91 months overall schedule delay.

All four of those programs suffered “technical challenges compounded by risky programmatic decisions,” according to the report. Examples of the programmatic decisions that contributed to the cost and schedule problems, particularly in the case of human spaceflight programs, include providing low cost and schedule reserves and use of “aggressive” internal schedules that “could exacerbate delays and lead to cost overruns.”

In the case of Mars 2020, its cost overruns are more modest — $12.9 million in the last year — and the mission remains on schedule for a mid-2020 launch. The report blamed issues with a technology demonstration instrument on the mission, as well as higher costs for integrating another instrument.

SGSS has suffered repeated problems, the GAO said, including “incomplete understanding of its requirements” by the contractor and project management issues. Those problems have continued, the report noted, even as the scope of the project decreased.

Steve Jurczyk, NASA acting associate administrator, acknowledged that there were “serious challenges” with SGSS in a May 1 presentation to a joint meeting of the Aeronautics and Space Engineering Board and Space Studies Board of the National Academies. “The good news is that they’ve turned it around,” he said, citing improved project management and contractor performance.

However, he added that the administration’s 2019 budget request to cancel SGSS and consider commercial alternatives. “That leaves us in a very challenging position,” he said, with only one of four antennas upgraded. He said the agency is performing an independent study of SGSS and alternatives.

Other delays and cost increases, the GAO report, are due to technical problems found during integration and testing of spacecraft. That includes the James Webb Space Telescope, whose launch has now been delayed to around May 2020, with a potential overrun of its $8 billion cost cap. NASA’s ICESat-2 spacecraft, an Earth science mission, has also suffered several months of delays because of problems with its main instrument, a laser altimeter.

Some problems, the GAO said, are not directly to blame on the projects themselves. That includes delays in the launch of the GRACE-Follow On and ICON missions because of launch vehicle problems, and a change in scope in a synthetic aperture radar mission being jointly developed by NASA and the Indian space agency ISRO as a result of discussions by an interagency working group.

Some of the schedule issues, the report said, may be due to workforce issues. The GAO cited several cases where projects have run into delays because of “experienced workforce shortages” and difficulty retaining key workers. NASA’s workforce, the report noted, is aging, with 56 percent of its employees age 50 or older, an increase of seven percentage points in five years.

The GAO said NASA was at risk of growing cost and schedule overruns because of those projects and others, citing previously-reported schedule risks for NASA’s commercial crew program. New programs, like Europa Clipper and a proposed follow-on lander, and the Wide-Field Infrared Survey Telescope (WFIRST), will also be ramping up.

“The composition of the portfolio in the coming years is expected to include similarly large and complex projects, putting NASA at risk of continued cost increases and schedule delays,” the GAO concluded. While NASA is taking steps to prevent similar problems, like a recent effort to reduce the scope and cost of WFIRST, the report argued those measures may not be sufficient.

“But even with these efforts, NASA’s cost and schedule performance may be further tested in upcoming years as some expensive, complex projects linger in the portfolio longer than expected,” the report stated.

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NASA may extend space station missions to address potential commercial crew delays

ISS

WASHINGTON — NASA is in discussions with its Russian counterparts about extending some upcoming space station missions as a way to buy more time for development of commercial crew vehicles.

During an April 12 hearing by the commerce, justice and science subcommittee of the House Appropriations Committee on the agency’s fiscal year 2019 budget proposal, NASA Acting Administrator Robert Lightfoot said longer “increments” of crews on the ISS could be one way to provide more schedule margin in the event of additional delays by Boeing and SpaceX in the development of their crewed spacecraft.

“Right now we don’t show a gap” in U.S. access to the International Space Station, Lightfoot said in response to a question posed by subcommittee chairman Rep. John Culberson (R-Texas). “But we’re looking at options at what can we do to not have a gap.”

“We’re working with our partners, our Russian partners, on if we can have longer increments for crew members that go up,” he said.

He revisited that later in the hearing. “One thing we have is a great relationship with our Russians partners, and we’re looking at other alternatives about potentially extending mission duration for the current missions that are there so that we don’t gap the ability to get there,” he said.

NASA’s current agreement with flying astronauts on Soyuz vehicles expires next year, after the agency purchased three seats on Soyuz flights launching in the spring of 2019 and returning in the fall. It’s not clear what would be involved in extending ISS mission durations, such as any technical issues regarding how long a Soyuz spacecraft can remain docked to the ISS.

NASA announced April 5 it had updated its existing commercial crew contract with Boeing to study modifications to the crewed test flight for the company’s CST-100 Starliner. Those modifications would include adding a third astronaut and extending the spacecraft’s stay at the ISS from two weeks to as long as six months. Those changes, Lightfoot noted at the hearing, were another way to mitigate the effects of additional development delays.

At the hearing, Lightfoot said there was still schedule margin for the development of Starliner and SpaceX’s Crew Dragon to be ready by the fall of 2019. Schedules last updated in January call for both companies to make uncrewed test flights of their vehicles in August. Boeing would then make a crewed test flight in November, followed by SpaceX in December.

Lightfoot, though, hinted that those schedules would be delayed again. “We still expect to see the first test flights at the end of this year,” he said, later elaborating that these were the uncrewed test flights for both companies.

Culberson asked when the crewed test flights would take place, and Lightfoot said he would take that for the record. “I’m focused on the uncrewed one right now,” he said.

Juggling the SLS launch schedule

Lightfoot also said at the hearing that NASA was revisiting the schedule for Space Launch System missions based on the unexpected windfall it received in the final 2018 omnibus appropriations bill.

That bill, signed into law March 23, provided $350 million for NASA to build a second mobile launch platform for the SLS. NASA officials said last year a second platform could help shorten the gap between the first and second SLS launches, but did not include funding for it in its 2019 budget proposal, citing competing priorities.

That second launch platform, which would be designed for the Block 1B version of the SLS with the larger Exploration Upper Stage, would reduce the 33-month “iron bar” in the schedule between the first two SLS missions created by the time needed to modify the current platform. That platform has been built to support the Block 1 version of SLS, which uses the Interim Cryogenic Propulsion Stage (ICPS).

Lightfoot said that having a second launch platform opens the door to launching a second SLS mission with the ICPS. That could be used, he said, to launch the Europa Clipper mission, which could be ready for launch as soon as 2022. NASA’s 2019 budget proposal, though, plans a 2025 launch of Europa Clipper using a commercially-procured launch vehicle rather than SLS.

Another option would be to fly the first crewed Orion mission, known as Exploration Mission (EM) 2, on that second SLS Block 1. “If EM-2 flies that way, we would have to change the mission profile because we can’t do what we would do if we had the Exploration Upper Stage,” he said. “But that still gets humans in orbit and still allows us to check out all the systems that we wouldn’t check out on EM-1.”

He indicated that the funding for the second mobile launch platform took the agency by surprise. “You’re going to have to give us a little time, because that was just a couple weeks ago that we found out that we were getting that,” he said.

Defending budget cuts

The two-hour hearing by the subcommittee was largely cordial, with members thanking Lightfoot for his record-setting service as acting administrator. Lightfoot announced last month he will retire from the agency at the end of April.

He was called on by some members, though, to defend cuts in the 2019 proposal. That included NASA’s education office as well as four Earth science missions, all of which the administration sought to cut in 2018 but which Congress ultimately funded.

Lightfoot said it was continuing to work on those programs funded in 2018 despite the administration’s new effort to cancel them. “We are ready to execute as we were asked to do in 2018,” he said.

He added that NASA has looked at ways to make its education office more effective. That office, he said, will soon be renamed the “Next-Gen STEM Office” to focus on science, technology, engineering and mathematics education activities for the next generation. But, should the administration’s proposal to defund the office be approved, he said the agency would focus its education activities through its missions. “That’s going to be how were going to try to inspire the next generation as we go forward,” he said.

“Admittedly, that’s going to be a concern whether that can actually fill the void or not,” he said later in the hearing. “As long as we’re getting appropriated the money, we will have an education office that executes what you guys have asked us to do.”

Committee members also questioned plans to cancel the Wide-Field Infrared Survey Telescope (WFIRST) in the 2019 budget proposal, citing its inclusion as the top-priority large mission in the 2010 astrophysics decadal. Lightfoot said that, should WFIRST be cancelled, NASA would look at ways instrument technology developed for it could be applied to future missions.

Culberson said his subcommittee planned to hold a hearing on issues with both WFIRST and the James Webb Space Telescope, whose launch NASA said last month would be delayed by about a year to May 2020. That hearing is tentatively scheduled for May 9, although Lightfoot said that ongoing reviews of JWST, including one by an independent review board established by NASA after the latest delay, will not be ready in time to support that hearing.

Culberson also offered advice to members concerned about cuts to education or science programs in the administration’s proposal. “The budget, again, is just a recommendation,” he said. “We don’t get too worked up over the budget.”

SpaceNews.com

Original Link

NASA may extend space station missions to address potential commercial crew delays

ISS

WASHINGTON — NASA is in discussions with its Russian counterparts about extending some upcoming space station missions as a way to buy more time for development of commercial crew vehicles.

During an April 12 hearing by the commerce, justice and science subcommittee of the House Appropriations Committee on the agency’s fiscal year 2019 budget proposal, NASA Acting Administrator Robert Lightfoot said longer “increments” of crews on the ISS could be one way to provide more schedule margin in the event of additional delays by Boeing and SpaceX in the development of their crewed spacecraft.

“Right now we don’t show a gap” in U.S. access to the International Space Station, Lightfoot said in response to a question posed by subcommittee chairman Rep. John Culberson (R-Texas). “But we’re looking at options at what can we do to not have a gap.”

“We’re working with our partners, our Russian partners, on if we can have longer increments for crew members that go up,” he said.

He revisited that later in the hearing. “One thing we have is a great relationship with our Russians partners, and we’re looking at other alternatives about potentially extending mission duration for the current missions that are there so that we don’t gap the ability to get there,” he said.

NASA’s current agreement with flying astronauts on Soyuz vehicles expires next year, after the agency purchased three seats on Soyuz flights launching in the spring of 2019 and returning in the fall. It’s not clear what would be involved in extending ISS mission durations, such as any technical issues regarding how long a Soyuz spacecraft can remain docked to the ISS.

NASA announced April 5 it had updated its existing commercial crew contract with Boeing to study modifications to the crewed test flight for the company’s CST-100 Starliner. Those modifications would include adding a third astronaut and extending the spacecraft’s stay at the ISS from two weeks to as long as six months. Those changes, Lightfoot noted at the hearing, were another way to mitigate the effects of additional development delays.

At the hearing, Lightfoot said there was still schedule margin for the development of Starliner and SpaceX’s Crew Dragon to be ready by the fall of 2019. Schedules last updated in January call for both companies to make uncrewed test flights of their vehicles in August. Boeing would then make a crewed test flight in November, followed by SpaceX in December.

Lightfoot, though, hinted that those schedules would be delayed again. “We still expect to see the first test flights at the end of this year,” he said, later elaborating that these were the uncrewed test flights for both companies.

Culberson asked when the crewed test flights would take place, and Lightfoot said he would take that for the record. “I’m focused on the uncrewed one right now,” he said.

Juggling the SLS launch schedule

Lightfoot also said at the hearing that NASA was revisiting the schedule for Space Launch System missions based on the unexpected windfall it received in the final 2018 omnibus appropriations bill.

That bill, signed into law March 23, provided $350 million for NASA to build a second mobile launch platform for the SLS. NASA officials said last year a second platform could help shorten the gap between the first and second SLS launches, but did not include funding for it in its 2019 budget proposal, citing competing priorities.

That second launch platform, which would be designed for the Block 1B version of the SLS with the larger Exploration Upper Stage, would reduce the 33-month “iron bar” in the schedule between the first two SLS missions created by the time needed to modify the current platform. That platform has been built to support the Block 1 version of SLS, which uses the Interim Cryogenic Propulsion Stage (ICPS).

Lightfoot said that having a second launch platform opens the door to launching a second SLS mission with the ICPS. That could be used, he said, to launch the Europa Clipper mission, which could be ready for launch as soon as 2022. NASA’s 2019 budget proposal, though, plans a 2025 launch of Europa Clipper using a commercially-procured launch vehicle rather than SLS.

Another option would be to fly the first crewed Orion mission, known as Exploration Mission (EM) 2, on that second SLS Block 1. “If EM-2 flies that way, we would have to change the mission profile because we can’t do what we would do if we had the Exploration Upper Stage,” he said. “But that still gets humans in orbit and still allows us to check out all the systems that we wouldn’t check out on EM-1.”

He indicated that the funding for the second mobile launch platform took the agency by surprise. “You’re going to have to give us a little time, because that was just a couple weeks ago that we found out that we were getting that,” he said.

Defending budget cuts

The two-hour hearing by the subcommittee was largely cordial, with members thanking Lightfoot for his record-setting service as acting administrator. Lightfoot announced last month he will retire from the agency at the end of April.

He was called on by some members, though, to defend cuts in the 2019 proposal. That included NASA’s education office as well as four Earth science missions, all of which the administration sought to cut in 2018 but which Congress ultimately funded.

Lightfoot said it was continuing to work on those programs funded in 2018 despite the administration’s new effort to cancel them. “We are ready to execute as we were asked to do in 2018,” he said.

He added that NASA has looked at ways to make its education office more effective. That office, he said, will soon be renamed the “Next-Gen STEM Office” to focus on science, technology, engineering and mathematics education activities for the next generation. But, should the administration’s proposal to defund the office be approved, he said the agency would focus its education activities through its missions. “That’s going to be how were going to try to inspire the next generation as we go forward,” he said.

“Admittedly, that’s going to be a concern whether that can actually fill the void or not,” he said later in the hearing. “As long as we’re getting appropriated the money, we will have an education office that executes what you guys have asked us to do.”

Committee members also questioned plans to cancel the Wide-Field Infrared Survey Telescope (WFIRST) in the 2019 budget proposal, citing its inclusion as the top-priority large mission in the 2010 astrophysics decadal. Lightfoot said that, should WFIRST be cancelled, NASA would look at ways instrument technology developed for it could be applied to future missions.

Culberson said his subcommittee planned to hold a hearing on issues with both WFIRST and the James Webb Space Telescope, whose launch NASA said last month would be delayed by about a year to May 2020. That hearing is tentatively scheduled for May 9, although Lightfoot said that ongoing reviews of JWST, including one by an independent review board established by NASA after the latest delay, will not be ready in time to support that hearing.

Culberson also offered advice to members concerned about cuts to education or science programs in the administration’s proposal. “The budget, again, is just a recommendation,” he said. “We don’t get too worked up over the budget.”

SpaceNews.com

Original Link

WFIRST work continues despite budget and schedule uncertainty

Work on NASA’s Wide Field Infrared Survey Telescope (WFIRST) continues despite a plan in the administration’s 2019 budget proposal to cancel the mission. Credit: NASA

WASHINGTON — Despite problems with another large astronomy mission and its own threatened cancellation, NASA’s Wide Field Infrared Survey Telescope (WFIRST) is expected to clear a major review next month after having reduced its costs.

At a meeting of the Committee on Astronomy and Astrophysics of the National Academies’ Space Studies Board here March 27, NASA officials said WFIRST was on track to complete a review called Key Decision Point (KDP) B April 11, allowing it to enter Phase B of its development.

That came after an effort to reduce the mission’s cost to $3.2 billion triggered by an independent review in October. That review concluded WFIRST’s cost had grown to $3.9 billion, with potential additional increases of up to $300 million to meet a “Class A” risk classification used by large missions rather than the less-stringent Class B that WFIRST was operating under.

That cost-cutting is complete. “We did, in fact, come up with a baseline that fits at $3.2 billion, and retains in excess of 30 percent reserves in the lifecycle cost,” said Jeffrey Kruk, WFIRST project scientist, in a presentation at the meeting. That cost estimate is at the 50 percent confidence level, he said, the requirement for the KDP-B review.

The majority of the cost cuts, he said, don’t affect the mission’s science. Some were what he called “painless” accounting shifts, such as taking into account international contributions as well as work by NASA’s space technology directorate on the spacecraft’s coronagraph instrument. Others came through the normal process of refining the spacecraft’s design as it matures, including eliminating one processing system on the spacecraft and simplifying planned integration and testing. Kruk estimated those changes accounted for two thirds to three fourths of the savings.

Other cuts did affect the mission’s science, he acknowledged. The mission relaxed the performance requirements for detectors used by its primary wide-field instrument, although a decrease in operating temperature enabled by another design change will help reduce noise.

The biggest change, he said, is turning the other WFIRST instrument, a coronagraph, into solely a technology demonstration. “The direction to us was that we were being too ambitious” by adding science requirements to the instrument that informed its design, he said. “That had impacts in a lot of areas.”

Major aspects of WFIRST, though, remain unchanged. The spacecraft continues to use a 2.4-meter telescope donated to NASA by another government agency, believed to be the National Reconnaissance Office. The spacecraft will retain its ability to be serviced to extend its lifetime and will also still be compatible with any future starshade mission to aid in the study of exoplanets. Kruk said that the starshade compatibility requires little hardware and minimal overall cost to the mission.

With those cuts in place, the mission completed a system requirements review and mission definition review in late February, he said, clearing the way for the KDP-B review as part of an overall schedule that leads to a launch in September 2025.

However, the administration’s fiscal year 2019 budget proposal seeks to cancel the mission. That decision, agency officials previously said, did not reflect on WFIRST’s cost problems but rather a decision to allocate the money that would have been spent on WFIRST on other agency priorities, including exploration programs.

For now, that proposal has no effect on WFIRST’s development. “We’ve been directed to simply proceed with our project plan exactly as before,” Kruk said. An omnibus spending bill for fiscal year 2018, signed into law March 23, provided $150 million for WFIRST, nearly $25 million above the administration’s original request.

In the report accompanying the 2018 bill, appropriators hinted at their opposition to the 2019 proposal to cancel WFIRST. “The agreement reiterates the importance of the decadal survey process and rejects the cancellation of scientific priorities recommended by the National Academy of Sciences decadal survey process,” it stated. WFIRST was the top-ranked flagship-class mission in the 2010 decadal survey report for astrophysics.

However, even if Congress rejects the cancellation of WFIRST, delays in the development of the James Webb Space Telescope, announced by NASA March 27 while the committee was discussing WFIRST, could affect the mission’s development. The delay in JWST’s launch to May 2020, and an expected breach of its $8 billion cost cap, could lead Congress to shift funds from WFIRST or other astrophysics programs.

Kruk said there has been, so far, little discussion about any impact JWST delays will have on WFIRST because the magnitude of those delays remains uncertain. He warned, though, that any WFIRST delay that results from dealing with JWST issues will affect its cost as well.

“If there’s a delay in our development, there’s no way that is not going to equate to an increase in the lifecycle cost,” he said.

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House members question balance of NASA programs in 2019 budget proposal

NASA Acting Administrator Robert Lightfoot testifies at a House Science Committee hearing on NASA’s fiscal year 2019 budget proposal March 7. Credit: NASA/Bill Ingalls

WASHINGTON — Members of the House space subcommittee raised concerns about elements of NASA’s fiscal year 2019 budget proposal during a March 7 hearing, from the cancellation of a space telescope to restructuring of the agency’s technology programs.

At the hearing by the space subcommittee of the House Science Committee, NASA Acting Administrator Robert Lightfoot defended the budget proposal released last month, arguing that it supports human spaceflight efforts as well as science and aeronautics.

“I think we still have a very balanced budget when you look across the multi-mission opportunities in science and aeronautics and technology, along with the exploration activity,” Lightfoot said. “What we’re really trying to do here is focus on a long-term plan with our eye on Mars, ultimately.”

Lightfoot’s comment came in response to a question from ranking member Rep. Ami Bera (D-Calif.), who thought the budget proposal focused too much on human exploration efforts. “There are some areas of concern of the overweight focus just on exploration,” he said. “None of us is going to argue that exploration is not important, but we also want to make sure we don’t lose sight of the space science, the space technology, the aeronautics and education.”

A particular area of concern for Bera was the plan in the budget proposal to cancel the Wide Field Infrared Survey Telescope, or WFIRST, the next flagship astrophysics missions at NASA after the James Webb Space Telescope. WFIRST, he noted, was the top priority large mission in the 2010 astrophysics decadal survey, where astronomers prioritized mission concepts for the next decade.

“The decadal survey has served us well, and not looking at this scientific-based prioritization and moving away from that can certainty set a dangerous precedent,” Bera said.

Lightfoot tried to downplay the effects of the proposed cancellation on astrophysics research. Asked later in the hearing by Rep. Jim Banks (R-Ind.) about the consequences of not flying WFIRST, Lightfoot suggested other missions, including the Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS) scheduled to launch in April, could fill in.

“We’re counting on TESS and James Webb to fill the astrophysics needs for quite a bit of time,” he said, but acknowledged there would be a “gap” in data. “To the astrophysics community, that’s a challenge from a scientific perspective.”

Others questioned plans to reorganize NASA’s management of space technology efforts, which would effectively fold the Space Technology Mission Directorate into the Human Exploration and Operations Mission Directorate, focusing more technology research on exploration needs.

Details of how that transition will take shape are still being developed in the agency, Lightfoot said. “What we’re really trying to do is make sure our technologies that we’re working on are truly aligned with the things we’re trying to do at the moon and ultimately at Mars,” he said.

Some members, though, worried this reorganization would take resources away from space technology activities not associated with exploration, or cut technology funding in general to support operations. Rep. Ed Perlmutter (D-Colo.) entered into the record a letter from Bobby Braun, dean of the College of Engineering and Applied Science at the University of Colorado and a former NASA chief technologist, critical of the proposed reorganization.

Braun, in the letter, called the reorganization “among the most devastating long-term aspects proposed” in the budget request. “Past history has shown that large development programs and technology development activities cannot and should not exist together, as a small hiccup in the development programs eats the budget of the basic research and technology advancement needed to accomplish more in space.”

Lightfoot defended the change, even while acknowledging that the new exploration research and technology program will focus on “long poles” for human missions to Mars. “I think we still have a very balanced portfolio going forward.”

Human spaceflight issues

Members also asked about the initiative in the budget proposal to end NASA funding of the International Space Station in 2025 while developing commercial capabilities in low Earth orbit. The lack of details about those plans, though, bothered some.

“I remain open to new ideas relative to future operations, but obviously we need a detailed and realistic, sustainable plan for any ISS transition in the future,” said Rep. Brian Babin (R-Texas), chairman of the subcommittee. “NASA will need to do a better job articulating this plan as we move forward.”

Babin also reminded Lightfoot that NASA had yet to deliver both the ISS transition plan and an exploration roadmap required by last year’s NASA authorization bill. Those documents were supposed to be delivered to Congress last December. Lightfoot later said that the exploration roadmap should be delivered by the end of the month.

Other members noted the absence of funding in the budget proposal for a second mobile launch platform for the Space Launch System. NASA officials said they were considering seeking funding for it last year as a means of closing the gap between the first and second SLS missions caused by required modifications to the existing platform to accommodate the larger version of SLS that will be used on the second and subsequent missions.

“We took a hard look at that,” Lightfoot said. A second platform, he said, could move up the date of the first crewed Orion mission from 2023 to 2022, but that it’s a “pretty expensive” project. “We had the discussion, we had the debate, and the answer came back we should stick with the plan that we’ve got.”

Babin returned to the issue later in the hearing, noting that Kennedy Space Center Director Bob Cabana had talked about it with him while in Florida for last month’s meeting of the National Space Council. “It sure sounded like it would absolutely be a great thing if we could get a second one,” he said.

Lightfoot said that part of the expense of a second launch platform involved also purchasing and human rating a second Interim Cryogenic Propulsion Stage and using it with the existing mobile launch platform for a second SLS mission while the new mobile launcher, for the Block 1B versions of SLS, is built. That would allow for a crewed launch sooner than modifying the platform to accommodate the larger SLS.

Lightfoot also confirmed that NASA is studying flying astronauts on commercial crew test flights as a contingency measure should Boeing and SpaceX experience further delays in the development of their vehicles. Bill Gerstenmaier, NASA associate administrator for human exploration and operations, said last month that option was being considered since additional Soyuz spacecraft will not be available after the fall of 2019.

“We are looking at several options” for maintaining access to the ISS, Lightfoot said, but didn’t disclose the other options beyond flying crews on test flights. “We’re still confident that our commercial providers are going to provide us the capability we need, and we’re just looking at contingencies in case.”

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Op-ed | In defense of astrophysics

WFIRST was the No. 1 rated large-scale mission in the 2010 decadal survey for astrophysics. Credit: NASA illustration

NASA’s astrophysics program has an outstanding, decades-long track record of scientific achievement and public engagement. From the Hubble Space Telescope, arguably the greatest space science mission of all time, to the transformational Kepler planet-hunting telescope, NASA’s astrophysics missions have rewritten textbooks and inspired millions. The announcement in President Donald J. Trump’s fiscal year 2019 budget request for NASA to cancel the Wide Field Infrared Survey Telescope (WFIRST) and reduce the astrophysics division budget by 12 percent compared to its FY 2017 budget request is truly puzzling.

The WFIRST mission was the top priority of the rigorous community consensus decadal survey process in 2010 and is the space astrophysics cornerstone in the 2020s for addressing two exciting fields: dark energy and exoplanets. The 2.4-meter diameter WFIRST telescope will deeply embed space astrophysics in the Big Data era, with its near-infrared camera having over 100 times larger field of view than Hubble, accomplishing precision measurements that no other telescope can perform. It also lays the technological foundations for future, more ambitious missions aiming to directly image Earth-like exoplanets around nearby stars.

Figure 1: NASA astrophysics budget history and future planning projection from Slide 57 of the NASA Astrophysics Town Hall presentation to the American Astronomical Society meeting in January 2018. The plot has been annotated to show the drop in funding (red arrows) in the FY 2019 President's Budget Request (PBR), cancellation of WFIRST, and projected lost resources (black hash marks) during the next decade.Figure 1: NASA astrophysics budget history and future planning projection from Slide 57 of the NASA Astrophysics Town Hall presentation to the American Astronomical Society meeting in January 2018. The plot has been annotated to show the drop in funding (red arrows) in the FY 2019 President’s Budget Request (PBR), cancellation of WFIRST, and projected lost resources (black hash marks) during the next decade.

The long-term picture that the WFIRST cancellation and budget reduction presents for the future of NASA’s astrophysics program is troubling. Figure 1 shows the astrophysics division’s budget history back to FY 2004, along with projections of prospective out-year budget profiles that were to form the basis for the 2020 astronomy and astrophysics decadal survey prioritizations. This projected out-year budget bleeds nearly $1 billion during the next five years, $2 billion to $3 billion over the next decade, and squashes any realistic hope of executing a balanced program at the frontiers of astrophysical research. Despite performing world-class science that captures the imaginations of people around the globe, it is stunning to see that the astrophysics funding is projected to be below its budget from 15 years ago, as though it were a dying field of inquiry with no discoveries left to make. Nothing could be further from the truth!

If the annual budget of the astrophysics division had increases this decade like the other Science Mission Directorate divisions, it would be at least in the $1.6 billion to $1.8 billion range. This is the level needed to support a balanced program of large, medium and small missions carrying out the priorities of the National Academies’ next decadal survey. President Trump’s FY 2019 budget request goes in the reverse direction and will undermine U.S. leadership in astrophysics during the 2020s and beyond.

As shown numerous times by NASA officials at town halls and advisory committee meetings, the annual astrophysics budget at its current level of $1.35 billion – a level that has been flat for several years and is slightly below its historic budgetary levels from FY 2004-2008 – can accommodate the WFIRST mission’s estimated cost profile and be ready for launch by the mid-2020s. WFIRST has vigorous community support, with more than 50 poster presentations and multiple town halls at the most recent meeting of the American Astronomical Society. The AAS has issued a strong statement of support for WFIRST and NASA’s astrophysics program. The astronomical community has never espoused that its most compelling science can be accomplished through a single mission. In fact, the main message over the past several years has been the growing importance of “multi-messenger astronomy,” where understanding the physics of the universe and the phenomena within it require information from across entire electro-magnetic spectrum and now including gravitational waves. WFIRST is a critical piece of the multi-messenger puzzle for a broad suite of science investigations.

The hardest thing to do in programmatic planning is to match content to budget, especially for large, complex missions. It is normal at this early stage of project implementation – in the midst of the WFIRST system requirements review – for the agency to assess lifecycle cost estimates and compare them to the available budget. NASA has been going the extra mile in working with the National Academies, including establishing the WFIRST Independent External Technical/Management/Cost Review, to assess the mission development plans and alignment with the scientific priorities of the 2010 decadal survey in astronomy and astrophysics, and to do so within an acceptable cost profile during the next 7 to 8 years. Even at a targeted lifecycle cost of $3.2 billion, WFIRST would be only a third of the lifecycle cost of the James Webb Space Telescope, the top large astrophysics mission priority from the 2001 decadal survey, expected to launch next year. WFIRST is an appropriate scale of large mission to contemplate at this time. Aside from the critical scientific and technological contributions, it seems that those who decided to cancel WFIRST are also overlooking the important factors of inter-agency and international cooperation and significant taxpayer investment already made in the telescope structure inherited from the National Reconnaissance Office.

Congress needs to restore the WFIRST mission to NASA’s portfolio, to avoid the catastrophe of a “lost decade” and atrophying U.S. leadership in some of the world’s most exciting scientific fields. The best path would be to do so with a strong statement in the final FY 2018 appropriations.

Jon A. Morse is former director of the Astrophysics Division in the Science Mission Directorate at NASA Headquarters (2007-2011), and is currently the Chief Executive Officer of the nonprofit BoldlyGo Institute and a Research Associate in the Solar, Stellar, and Planetary Sciences Division at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics.

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NASA budget proposal seeks to cancel WFIRST

The White House’s fiscal year 2019 budget proposal would cancel WFIRST, the next flagship astronomy mission after the James Webb Space Telescope. Credit: NASA

Updated 2:15 p.m. Eastern.

WASHINGTON – The Trump administration is offering $19.9 billion for NASA in its fiscal year 2019 request, while seeking to cancel a flagship astronomy mission and end NASA funding of the International Space Station in 2025.

A key cut included in the proposal, released Feb. 12, is cancelling the Wide-Field Infrared Survey Telescope (WFIRST), the agency’s next flagship astrophysics mission after the James Webb Space Telescope. NASA had been in the midst of revising the mission’s design to lower its costs from an estimated $3.9 billion to $3.2 billion.

“Development of the WFIRST space telescope would have required a significant funding increase in 2019 and future years, with a total cost of more than $3 billion,” the White House Office of Management and Budget (OMB) stated in a document outlining planned cuts across the overall federal budget proposal. “Given competing priorities at NASA, and budget constraints, developing another large space telescope immediately after completing the $8.8 billion James Webb Space Telescope is not a priority for the Administration.”

OMB said it would it would instead redirect funding from WFIRST, which received $105 million in fiscal year 2017, “to other priorities of the science community, including completed astrophysics missions and research.” The document didn’t state how much of that planned funding would be redirected, but stated that funding for JWST, scheduled for launch next year, would be maintained.

NASA Acting Administrator Robert Lightfoot, giving a “State of NASA” speech at the Marshall Space Flight Center Feb. 12, only glossed over the proposed cancellation of WFIRST. “We did have to make some hard decisions in science,” he said. “This budget proposes cancelling our WFIRST mission and taking those resources and redirecting them to other agency priorities.” He offered no additional details on the rationale for the mission’s cancellation.

Astronomers, caught unprepared by the proposal, strongly opposed it. “U.S. is abandoning its leadership in space astronomy,” said David Spergel, an astrophysicist at Princeton University and the Flatiron Institute, and a former chairman of the Space Studies Board of the National Academies, in a tweet.

WFIRST, he and others noted, was the top priority of the 2010 astrophysics decadal survey for flagship missions, following such past missions as JWST, the Chandra X-Ray Observatory, and the Hubble Space Telescope. “Abandoning WFIRST is abandoning U.S leadership in dark energy and exoplanets,” he said.

The budget also seeks to cancel five Earth science missions that were proposed for cancellation in 2018: Radiation Budget Instrument (RBI); Plankton, Aerosol, Cloud, ocean Ecosystem (PACE); Orbiting Carbon Observatory-3 (OCO-3); Deep Space Climate Observatory (DSCOVR) Earth-viewing instruments; and Climate Absolute Radiance and Refractivity Observatory (CLARREO) Pathfinder. A House version of the fiscal year 2018 spending bill supported those cuts, while the Senate version restored funding for those programs. A final 2018 appropriations bill has not been completed by Congress.

NASA, though, has already moved to cancel one of those projects, RBI. In a Jan. 26 statement, the agency said it had decided to discontinue development of RBI because of “significant technical issues and substantial cost growth” and the low risk of a data gap if RBI is not flown. RBI was to have flown on the JPSS-2 polar-orbiting weather satellite scheduled for launch in 2021.

The budget proposal for 2019 also attempts again to close NASA’s Office of Education, saving $100 million. That proposal in 2018 faced strong bipartisan opposition in Congress.

Exploration and science

The proposal, as expected, includes plans to end NASA funding of the ISS in 2025. It offers $150 million to “begin support for commercial partners to encourage development of capabilities that the private sector and NASA can use” as successors to the station.

The budget also calls for the commercial launch in 2022 of a “key power and propulsion space tug” that could serve as a core element of NASA’s proposed Deep Space Gateway. NASA had previously proposed launching the element as a secondary payload on the second Space Launch System mission, now expected to take place no sooner than 2023.

To support the administration’s plans for a human return to the moon, the budget adds a new lunar robotic exploration program that “would support innovative approaches to achieve human and science exploration goals,” including transportation services, rovers and experiments. It also includes an Exploration Research and Technology program line to “to enable lower-cost technology and systems needed to sustainably return humans to the Moon and beyond.”

“The budget focuses NASA on its core exploration mission,” Lightfoot said. “The proposal this year provides a renewed focus to our human spaceflight activities and really tries to expand our commercial and international partnerships.”

Lightfoot said these new exploration programs stemmed from a 45-day study NASA performed at the request of Vice President Mike Pence at the first meeting of the reconstituted National Space Council in October. “This study would become the backbone of our exploration campaign that’s called out in the President’s Space Policy Directive 1, signed by President Trump and then codified, I believe, in this budget,” he said.

“We’re once again on a path to return to the moon, with an eye towards Mars,” he said. “This time we’re leveraging the multiple partners we have both here at home and internationally in developing a sustainable approach where the moon is simply one step on our truly ambitious and long-term journey to reach out further into the solar system.”

While Earth science programs at NASA would face cuts, and WFIRST would be cancelled, planetary science would see an increase to $2.2 billion. That level includes $50 million to begin studies of a Mars sample return mission and $150 million for planetary defense.

Those planetary science funds, Lightfoot said, would include funding for the Mars 2020 rover mission as well as the Europa Clipper mission to the icy, potentially habitable moon of Jupiter.

“A nonstarter”

The overall spending request was originally $19.6 billion, but was augmented by the administration. In a Feb. 12 letter to House Speaker Paul Ryan, OMB Director Mick Mulvaney said the administration will offer some additional funding to selected non-defense discretionary programs in light of a two-year budget deal reached by Congress last week that raises spending caps. In the case of NASA, that includes $300 million “to fund innovative exploration-related programs” and other agency needs, which he did not specify.

The budget proposal is already facing opposition from key members of Congress. “The administration’s budget for NASA is a nonstarter. If we’re ever going to get to Mars with humans on board and return them safely, then we need a larger funding increase for NASA,” said Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.), ranking member of the Senate Commerce Committee, in a statement immediately after the OMB released the budget.

He reiterated previous criticism calling for an end to NASA funding of the ISS in 2025. “Turning off the lights and walking away from our sole outpost in space at a time when we’re pushing the frontiers of exploration makes no sense.”

Comparison of provisional fiscal year 2018 and proposed 2019 budgets (all values in millions of dollars)

Account FY18 Provisional FY19 Request Difference
DEEP SPACE EXPLORATION SYSTEMS $4,222.6 $4,558.8 $336.2
– Exploration Systems Development $3,669.8
– Advanced Exploration Systems $889.0
– Exploration Research and Development $0.0
EXPLORATION RESEARCH and TECHNOLOGY $820.8 $1,002.7 $181.9
LEO AND SPACEFLIGHT OPERATIONS $4,850.1 $4,624.6 -$225.5
– International Space Station $1,462.2
– Space Transportation $2,108.7
– Space and Flight Support $903.7
– Commercial LEO Development $150.0
SCIENCE $5,725.8 $5,895.0 $169.2
– Earth Science $1,784.2 $ –
– Planetary Science $2,234.7
– Astrophysics $1,185.4
– Heliophysics $690.7
AERONAUTICS $655.5 $633.9 -$21.6
EDUCATION $99.3 $0.0 -$99.3
SAFETY, SECURITY AND MISSION SERVICES $2,749.8 $2,749.7 -$0.1
CONSTRUCTION & ENVIRONMENTAL $358.3 $388.2 $29.9
INSPECTOR GENERAL $37.6 $39.3 $1.7
TOTAL $19,519.8 $19,892.2 $372.4

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Scientists and engineers push for servicing and assembly of future space observatories

While NASA moved away from servicing of space telescopes after Hubble, scientists and engineers believe that astronaut and robotic servicing of future observatories is critical both to make them cost-effective in the long run as well as enable their launch in the first place. Credit: NASA

NATIONAL HARBOR, Md. — A group of astronomers and engineers is seeking to convince NASA to study in-space servicing and assembly of future space telescopes, including the role the proposed Deep Space Gateway could play to support it.

During a panel discussion at the 231st Meeting of the American Astronomical Society here, members of an ad-hoc group formed last year to study the topic argued that servicing and assembly techniques, involving astronauts or robots, could enable both servicing of telescopes to extend their lives as well as assemble future observatories too large to launch in a single piece.

NASA has taken very different approaches to servicing for its flagship space telescopes. At one extreme is the Hubble Space Telescope, which was repaired and upgraded on five shuttle servicing missions between 1993 and 2009, allowing the telescope to overcome initial problems and improve its performance.

“When Hubble was launched in 1990, it was not a very good telescope,” said John Grunsfeld, a former astronaut who flew on three of those shuttle servicing missions and later served as the agency’s associate administrator for science. “Had it not been serviceable, we would have long ago abandoned it.”

The James Webb Space Telescope is at the other extreme, with no capability for servicing. Once launched, the spacecraft will go through a complex sequence to unfold its mirror and deploy a large sunshield, all without the ability for an astronaut or a robotic spacecraft to fix anything should that deployment go awry.

“Once we launch it, James Webb will start, on its own, doing all of these deployments by commands,” he said. “No one is up there to give it a little shake if anything sticks.”

To drive that point home, Grunsfeld displayed a slide. “This is the full description of the James Webb Space Telescope servicing plans,” he said. The slide was blank.

While JWST is not designed for servicing — Grunsfeld said it might be possible, but risky, to do some kind of robotic refueling mission for the telescope about 10 years after launch — the Wide Field Infrared Survey Telescope (WFIRST), the next flagship mission after JWST, will have some support for robotic servicing. Adding latches and modular interfaces for such servicing increases the cost of WFIRST only slightly, he said, and those costs can be recovered by savings during integration and test.

The group is also working to convince the teams working on four ongoing studies of large mission concepts for space observatories, intended to support the next decadal survey for astrophysics to be completed in 2020, that they should incorporate in-space servicing or assembly technologies.

“Some of the teams are very receptive, and others are just pedaling as fast as they can to get some of their concept studies done prior to the decadal,” Grunsfeld said. Representatives of all the mission design teams were at a November meeting to discuss servicing and assembly technologies, he added. “Some of them hadn’t considered any kind of serviceability. I think we actually opened their eyes” to concepts like making instruments modular and easily replaced.

NASA’s proposed Deep Space Gateway, a human-tended outpost in cislunar space, could also support servicing and assembly of space telescopes, serving as a base of operations for astronauts working on such spacecraft. “If that comes about, it would certainly make a huge advance to assembling them in space,” said Ronald Polidan of Polidan Science Systems and Technology.

Polidan said that the group, at its November meeting, suggested that NASA work with industry and academia to study the roles the Gateway could play in assembly and servicing of observatories. That needs to be done in the near future, he said, in order to ensure that any specific requirements for those activities are incorporated into the overall requirements of the Gateway, as well as ensure the Gateway design does not preclude such work.

Whether or not the Deep Space Gateway is used for building and repairing space telescopes, Polidan and others argued that in-space assembly will ultimately be needed as the research demands by astronomers lead to observatories too large to be launched from the ground, and perhaps too expensive as well.

Polidan said that the largest telescopes that could be launched by current and upcoming vehicles, including the Space Launch System, have apertures of no more than about 15 meters. Some of the concepts under study for the 2020 decadal are that large. “The launch vehicle ‘wall’ is imminent,” he said. “After this next round of telescopes, more likely than not what we would like to fly will not fit in a single launch.”

Servicing, he added, can extend the lives of space telescopes and upgrade their instruments, as was the case with Hubble, making them more cost-effective in the long run. “You now have the equivalent of a ground-based observatory, that you can upgrade and change,” he said. “It is now a facility rather than one you have to build, throw away, and build again.”

“The James Webb Space Telescope is incredibly audacious, and it’s going to be amazing. For many of you, it’s going to be your future in astronomy,” Grunsfeld said. “What’s next? Are we going to go small because we’re afraid of asking for too much money, or afraid of risk, or are we going to go big and keep at the forefront of scientific research?”

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NASA plans to have WFIRST reviews complete by April

Changes to the WFIRST mission to reduce its cost have focused on its instruments, including a coronagraph that will now be considered a technology demonstration with funding contributions from NASA’s space technology arm. Credit: NASA

NATIONAL HARBOR, Md. — NASA hopes to have a major astronomy mission back on track by April after completing efforts to reduce its cost, an agency official said Jan. 8.

Speaking at a meeting of astronomers prior to the start of the 231st Meeting of the American Astronomical Society here, Paul Hertz, director of NASA’s astrophysics division, said the agency plans to hold a key review for the Wide-Field Infrared Survey Telescope (WFIRST), known as Key Decision Point B, by April.

WFIRST was the subject of an independent analysis that concluded in October that its cost was at least $3.6 billion. NASA, in response to that report, called on the project to “descope” the mission to bring its cost down to a prior of estimate of $3.2 billion.

Hertz said that, under the project’s current schedule, there will be a system requirements review and mission design review in February, followed by an independent cost assessment. That will be followed by the Key Decision Point B review in March or April, which would allow the project to proceed into Phase B of its development.

The biggest changes to WFIRST to lower its cost involve one of its instruments, a coronagraph. That instrument is designed to precisely block light from individual stars, allowing observations of planets or dust disks orbiting them.

That instrument, he said, will now be considered a technology demonstration, and its cost will be shared with the agency’s Space Technology Mission Directorate. “Their contribution, and international contributions, do not count against the $3.2 billion,” he said.

As a technology demonstration, Hertz said the coronagraph will have fewer science functions. It will, he said, remain “a very valuable technology demonstration with feed forward into future direct imaging missions.”

The mission is also planning reductions for WFIRST’s other main instrument, a wide-field instrument. Hertz said the instrument will have fewer operating modes and relaxed detector requirements, and some capabilities will be provided by unannounced international partners.

Another change has been revisions to the overall project schedule, which allows for a launch about six months sooner than previously planned, saving money. However, he said the project will spend more money on “mission assurance” activities in response to a finding by last fall’s independent review that argued the mission was taking on a higher risk profile than warranted for one of this size.

Hertz said later that NASA is in discussions with five potential international partners for roles on WFIRST. “Each of those partners is going through their own internal processes, so we’re not announcing what we’re assuming they will contribute until they’re ready to say publicly that they have approval,” he said.

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Astronomers meet amid questions about the status of NASA flagship missions

NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope recently completed thermal vacuum testing at the Johnson Space Center for a launch now planned for the spring of 2019, a delay from October 2018. Credit: NASA

WASHINGTON — Scientists gathering this week for the country’s largest astronomy meeting will discuss plans for future space telescopes, while raising questions about the status of upcoming missions.

More than 3,000 people are expected to attend the 231st Meeting of the American Astronomical Society (AAS) at National Harbor, Maryland, for a week of scientific presentations as well as mission and policy updates from NASA and the National Science Foundation.

Astronomers come to the meeting as NASA’s next two flagship astrophysics missions, the James Webb Space Telescope and Wide-Field Infrared Survey Telescope (WFIRST), face delays and questions about their budgets and capabilities.

NASA had planned to launch JWST this October on an Ariane 5, but in September announced a delay until the spring of 2019. The agency said at the time that the mission was facing no specific hardware issues, but instead that integration and testing of the $8 billion observatory was taking longer than anticipated.

“This is nothing to worry about,” said Martin Still, executive secretary of the Exoplanet Program Analysis Group (ExoPAG) at NASA Headquarters at a meeting of the group Jan. 7 in advance of the AAS conference. “This is the first time that NASA engineers and Northrop Grumman engineers had put all this together. They’re learning as they go, and they were just a little bit overenthusiastic about their schedule, overenthusiastic about how many things they could do in parallel.”

At a House Science Committee hearing a month ago, Thomas Zurbuchen, NASA associate administrator for science, said that an updated launch date for JWST would be ready for release in January and February, after an independent review of the status of the mission. Others at the hearing, though, cautioned that additional delays may be possible as the spacecraft goes through integration and testing work in the next year.

“More delays are possible given the risks associated with the work ahead and the level of schedule reserves that are now below what is usually recommended,” said Cristina Chaplain of the Government Accountability Office at the Dec. 6 hearing.

NASA’s next flagship astrophysics missions after JWST, WFIRST, is also facing scrutiny. Zurbuchen announced in October that he was asking program officials to make changes to the proposed mission, still in early stages of development, after an independent review concluded its estimated costs were approaching $4 billion. The redesign, Zurbuchen said, should bring the mission’s cost down to $3.2 billion.

That effort is in progress and is scheduled to be completed in February. Zurbuchen, in his October memo calling for the redesign, raised the possibility of revisiting the decision to use a donated 2.4-meter telescope assembly from the National Reconnaissance Office for WFIRST, rather than a smaller telescope originally envisioned for the mission, should the redesign not meet its cost cap.

At the December hearing, Thomas Young, a retired aerospace executive, said he was not particularly concerned about the WFIRST review. “I want to emphasize that there is no cause for panic,” he said. “What is transpiring is a perfectly healthy process to assure that the scope, cost and risk are appropriately defined prior to proceeding past milestone B,” a reference to Key Decision Point B, which NASA has postponed while the WFIRST redesign takes place.

Despite the problems with JWST and WFIRST, another NASA astrophysics missions is making good progress for a launch in the next few months. At the ExoPAG meeting, Still said the Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS) was wrapping up integration and test activities, and should be delivered to the Kennedy Space Center in February.

TESS is scheduled for launch no earlier than March 20 on a SpaceX Falcon 9, a launch date that is dependent on NASA certifying the vehicle in time for carrying science missions like TESS. Zurbuchen said at the December hearing that he expected that certification effort to be complete by early 2018.

“Everybody at Headquarters is excited enough that they’re starting to book flights” to attend the TESS launch, Still said.

TESS is a successor to Kepler, a NASA mission that has allowed astronomers to discover thousands of exoplanets as they cross, or transit, the disks of the stars they orbit, causing brief, periodic dimmings of those stars that can be observed. Kepler is expected to end operations later this year when it runs out of fuel used by its thrusters and is no longer to maintain attitude control.

“It is very much running on fumes,” Still said of Kepler. “Some time over the next 12 months, Kepler will indeed start to inelegantly drift away in pointing and will be unusable.”

At the AAS meeting, scientists will also be looking ahead to missions unlikely to fly for more than a decade. As part of preparations for the next astrophysics decadal survey, scheduled for release in late 2020, studies are underway of four concepts for flagship-class missions for consideration by that report. Updates about those mission concepts — the Habitable Exoplanet Imaging Mission, the Large Ultraviolet/Optical/Infrared Surveyor, the Lynx X-ray observatory and Origins Space Telescope — are scheduled for presentation at the conference, along with an update for the planning of the decadal survey.

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Independent review to examine JWST launch plans

While the telescope portion of the James Webb Space Telescope recently successfully completed a thermal vacuum test, issues with the spacecraft have delayed its launch to March to June 2019. Credit: NASA

WASHINGTON — NASA will provide an updated launch date for the James Webb Space Telescope early next year, even as some warn that the mission might face further delays.

At a Dec. 6 hearing of the House Science Committee’s space subcommittee, Thomas Zurbuchen, NASA associate administrator for science, said the revised launch date would come after an independent review of the status of the spacecraft.

“At this moment in time, with the information that I have, I believe it’s achievable,” he said of the current launch window of March to June 2019, which NASA announced in September after delaying the launch from October 2018. However, he said an independent review “is exactly what we should be doing, and frankly I have directed the team to do just that in January.”

That review won’t start until January, he said, because of ongoing tests of unfolding the sunshade of the space telescope. Previous tests, he said, took much longer than anticipated, playing a key factor in the decision to delay the launch. An updated launch date, he said, would likely come in “January or February.”

Such an independent review was proposed earlier in the hearing by another witness, retired aerospace executive Thomas Young. “In my opinion, the launch date and required funding cannot be determined until a new plan is thoroughly developed and verified by independent review,” he said.

Young warned that attempting to minimize schedule delays or additional cost to JWST could add risk to the mission. “JWST is at a point in its development where the only criterion that is important is mission success,” he said. “At this stage in the project, a few extra days or weeks or even months of schedule delay, or the expenditure of some additional dollars, is a small price to pay to ensure success of a mission as important as JWST.”

Zurbuchen didn’t identify any additional issues that might lead to more delays for JWST. However, Cristina Chaplain of the Government Accountability Office cautioned that the risk for such delays remained given the assembly and testing phase the spacecraft is in.

“More delays are possible given the risks associated with the work ahead and the level of schedule reserves that are now below what is usually recommended,” she said.

The hearing also addressed issues with the Wide-Field Infrared Survey Telescope (WFIRST), the next flagship-class astrophysics mission after JWST. In October, Zurbuchen directed the project to examine changes to the spacecraft, still in an early design phase, after an independent review found the mission was “not executable” without design changes or additional funding. Zurbuchen said at the hearing he expected to get a redesigned concept for the mission in February.

Young, in his testimony, said he was not concerned about WFIRST because NASA is addressing the cost concerns while the mission is still in an early phase. “NASA is to be congratulated for taking an important step” in the form of the independent review, he said.

“I want to emphasize that there is no cause for panic,” he said. “What is transpiring is a perfectly healthy process to assure that the scope, cost and risk are appropriately defined prior to proceeding past milestone B,” a reference to Key Decision Point B, which NASA has postponed while the WFIRST redesign takes place.

In his opening statement, subcommittee chairman Rep. Brian Babin (R-Texas) said that NASA’s decision to use a donated telescope assembly from the National Reconnaissance Office may not have provided the cost savings once promised for WFIRST, and hinted that decision should be revisited.

“Several years ago, this committee suggested NASA study WFIRST to determine if the assets from NRO would be appropriate for this mission, and whether it would cost more to repurpose existing hardware than to build the observatory from the ground up,” he said. “Now we face additional questions about the scope of the mission.”

Zurbuchen also faced questions about another, smaller space telescope mission, the Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS), which is scheduled for launch by March 2018. He said a focus shift detected in the spacecraft’s camera during low-temperature testing, announced earlier this year, should not prevent the spacecraft from achieving its science goals.

Rep. Mo Brooks (R-Ala.) quizzed Zurbuchen about the status of TESS’ launch vehicle, the SpaceX Falcon 9. The Block 4 version of the rocket that will be used to launch TESS has yet to be certified by NASA for the mission, and Brooks asked if there were concerns that the rocket will not be certified in time.

“At this moment in time I don’t have any such concerns,” Zurbuchen said, anticipating the certification process would be completed by early 2018.

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Report lays out potential changes to WFIRST to reduce its cost

An independent report concluded that the WFIRST mission, in its current approach, is “not executable” without cuts to the spacecraft or additional funding. Credit: NASA

WASHINGTON — An independent review board for NASA’s next flagship astronomy mission concluded in its final report that the project is “not executable” without additional funding or adjustments to the spacecraft.

NASA released the report, a 65-page document in the form of a PowerPoint presentation, Nov. 22, a month after the agency published its response calling for a reduction in the proposed cost of the Wide-Field Infrared Survey Telescope (WFIRST) and changes to its management.

The report, prepared by an outside committee established by NASA called the WFIRST Independent External Technical/Management/Cost Review (WIETR), found that various changes made to WFIRST since it was proposed as the top-ranking large, or flagship, mission in the 2010 astrophysics decadal survey created cost and technical difficulties.

“After multiple discussions that set the boundary conditions, NASA HQ made a series of decisions that set the stage for an approach and mission system concept that is more complex than probably anticipated from the point of view of scope, complexity, and the concomitant risks of implementation,” the report stated.

Those decisions include the use of a 2.4-meter telescope donated by the National Reconnaissance Office to NASA, larger than the one originally envisioned for WFIRST. Another factor is a decision to add an instrument called a coronagraph that is technically challenging but could support studies of extrasolar planets not possible with WFIRST’s other instrument, a wide-field imager.

Those changes, while increasing WFIRST’s capabilities, have also increased its costs. Initial concepts for WFIRST included in the decadal report had an estimated cost of less than $2 billion. The WIETR report concluded that, at a 70 percent confidence level, WFIRST would now cost $3.9 billion. An additional $250–300 million would also be needed if NASA changed the risk classification of the mission from Class B to Class A, which the report concluded would be consistent for missions of this caliber.

“The WIETR concludes therefore that although the scope is understood, as designed, the risks to the primary mission of WFIRST are significant and therefore the mission is not executable without adjustments and/or additional resources,” the report concluded.

Even before releasing the full report, NASA acted on its recommendations. In an Oct. 19 memo to Chris Scolese, director of the Goddard Space Flight Center, which hosts the WFIRST program, NASA Associate Administrator for Science Thomas Zurbuchen called for changes to the program to reduce its costs to an earlier target of $3.2 billion. He left open the door to more significant changes, including revisiting the use of the 2.4-meter telescope, if that cost target could not be achieved.

The report itemized the cost savings for a number of potential changes to WFIRST. The biggest would come from removing the coronagraph instrument from the mission, saving $400 million. Smaller reductions are possible with changes to the coronagraph or wide-field imager, as well as elimination of support for robotic servicing and compatibility with a potential future “starshade” spacecraft.

Zurbuchen, in his October letter, instructed that the coronagraph be reclassified as a technology demonstration instrument, one of the options considered by the report, to help reduce costs. However, the WIETR report concluded that if the $3.2 billion cost cap is required, as Zurbuchen indicated in his letter, it may require “descoping the [coronagraph] from the WFIRST mission, together with some of the other smaller-value descopes” to approach that figure.

That $3.2 billion cost cap, set by the program at a milestone known as Key Decision Point (KDP) A but not publicized prior to last month’s letter, may not be a realistic target at all, the WIETR team argued. “The expectation of a ‘$3.2B maximum’ management agreement cap set at KDP-A is not realistic for the scope, complexity, and expectations of the WFIRST mission,” it stated, citing the complexity created by the 2.4-meter telescope and the coronagraph.

NASA released the report with little fanfare Nov. 22, just before the Thanksgiving holiday, nearly a month after agency officials said it would wait until next year until doing so. At an Oct. 25 briefing about the report during a meeting of the Committee on Astronomy and Astrophysics of the National Academies’ Space Studies Board, Zurbuchen and others said they would wait until February, the deadline for completing proposed revisions to WFIRST, to release the report.

“The WIETR report has a lot of details in it, a lot of options that the WIETR panel laid out as possibilities for the team,” said Paul Hertz, director of NASA’s astrophysics division, at that meeting when asked why the release of the report would be delayed. “We want to give the project some space to make choices and come forward with a modified design without being second-guessed all the time in public.”

One committee member, though, pushed for an earlier release. “I think it was really a great job,” Thomas Young, a former NASA official and aerospace industry executive, said of the WIETR report. “Not releasing the report would take away from that. In other words, releasing the report shows that you’re transparent in what you’re doing.”

The cost growth of WFIRST could put pressure on other NASA astrophysics and broader science programs, something that a National Academies report that performed a midterm review of the 2010 astrophysics decadal warned about last year.

“WFIRST’s position as the number one recommendation from the 2010 Decadal Survey was predicated on it being low-risk technology and having a relatively short timescale. Circumstances accompanying the WFIRST implementation have dramatically altered the mission, increasing its cost and schedule,” the WIETR report stated.

“NASA HQ should be cognizant of community sensitivity regarding the perceived large and growing opportunity cost of WFIRST, relative to other compelling priorities for [NASA’s Science Mission Directorate], including other strategic missions,” the report continued. “This is especially important as preparations are being made for the 2020 Decadal Survey.”

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NASA seeks cost-cutting changes in design of WFIRST mission

NASa is looking to make changes to the design of the WFIRST mission to reduce its estimated cost from $3.6 to 3.2 billion, while retaining its 2.4-meter main telescope. Credit: NASA

WASHINGTON — The head of NASA’s science directorate has requested modifications to the design of its next flagship astrophysics mission based on the recommendations of an independent review.

The proposed changes to the Wide Field Infrared Survey Telescope (WFIRST) mission are intended to reduce the spacecraft’s projected cost by at least $400 million and address issues about the technical maturity and risk of some elements of the space observatory while the mission is still in its earliest phases of development.

In an Oct. 19 memo to Chris Scolese, director of the Goddard Space Flight Center, which hosts the WFIRST program, NASA Associate Administrator Thomas Zurbuchen said he was acting to make changes to the WFIRST program based on recommendations from the WFIRST Independent External Technical/Management/Cost Review, or WIETR. NASA carried out that review this summer based on a recommendation from a 2016 report by the National Academies, which worried that potential cost growth in WFIRST could affect the balance of other astrophysics missions funded by the agency.

“This report is as thorough and thoughtful as we hoped,” Zurbuchen said in a statement. “We are taking the report’s findings and recommendations very seriously as we think about the future of this exciting mission.”

In the memo, Zurbuchen directed Scolese to make a number of changes to the design of WFIRST, including cost reductions to both its main “widefield” instrument as well as a separate coronagraph instrument. Those reductions are intended to bring the mission’s estimated total cost down from its latest estimate of $3.6 billion to an earlier target of $3.2 billion.

“I am directing the Goddard Space Flight Center to study modifying the current WFIRST design, the design that was reviewed by the WIETR, to reduce cost and complexity sufficient to have a cost estimate consistent with the $3.2B cost target set at the beginning of Phase A,” Zurbuchen wrote in the memo.

In addition to seeking cost reductions from the two instruments, Zurbuchen said that the coronagraph instrument should be treated as a “technology demonstration” instrument. Zurbuchen noted in the memo that the WIETR report concluded incorporating that advanced instrument, designed to block light from individual stars to detect planets and debris disks orbiting them, “has been one of the mission system design and programmatic drivers” that “is certain to present risks to the primary mission” as development continues.

The independent review also raised questions about the risk classification of the mission. WFIRST is considered a “Class B” risk mission by NASA, which means it is high priority but only medium to high cost and with a medium mission lifetime. That is less stringent than the Class A assignments usually given to “strategically important missions with comparable levels of investment and risks,” Zurbuchen wrote.

The review, the memo noted, suggested NASA add more engineering development and spare hardware, as well as additional analysis, “to provide a more robust program” than its existing Class B risk classification. It also called for a “top-to-bottom cost-benefit assessment to balance scope, complexity, and the available resources” for WFIRST.

Zurbuchen, in his memo, requested that the review be completed in time for a system requirements review and mission design review scheduled for February 2018, which will support a review known as Key Decision Point B in March or April 2018. An independent cost review will also be carried out by this review to confirm that the revised WFIRST design fits into the $3.2 billion cost estimate.

That revised design will continue to make use of a 2.4-meter telescope, one of two obtained by NASA from the National Reconnaissance Office in 2012. That telescope, much larger than the 1.3-meter telescope originally proposed for WFIRST when astronomers identified the mission as its top priority flagship mission in the 2010 decadal survey, was intended to reduce costs while improving the scientific performance of the mission.

Zurbuchen, though, left open the possibility of revisiting that decision should this latest redesign fall short. “If the result of this study is the conclusion that WIFRST cannot be developed using the current 2.4m telescope architecture within the $3.2B cost target,” he wrote, “I will direct a follow-on study of a WFIRST mission consistent with the architecture described by the Decadal Survey.”

NASA, while releasing the Zurbuchen memo responding to the WIETR report, did not release the report itself. Zurbuchen and the two co-chairs of the WIETR panel, Orlando Figueroa and Peter Michelson, are scheduled to discuss the report at an Oct. 25 meeting of the Space Studies Board’s Committee on Astronomy and Astrophysics in Irvine, California.

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