House appropriations bill partially restores WFIRST funding

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WASHINGTON — A spending bill to be marked up by the House Appropriations Committee would provide some funding for a NASA space telescope proposed for cancellation, but not necessarily enough to keep the mission on schedule.

The House Appropriations Committee released May 16 the report accompanying the spending bill approved by commerce, justice and science (CJS) committee May 9. The full committee is scheduled to mark up the bill May 17 and send it to the full House for later consideration. That report provides additional information on funding levels for agencies such as NASA covered by the bill, as well as additional policy provisions.

That reports provides funding for the Wide Field Infrared Survey Telescope (WFIRST), which the administration proposed cancelling in its fiscal year 2019 budget request in February. The report offers $150 million for WFIRST, the same amount that the mission received in the final fiscal year 2018 omnibus spending bill in March. However, NASA’s 2018 budget proposal projected spending $302 million on the mission in 2019.

In the report, appropriators expressed concerns about the cost of the mission, citing a report by an independent review panel last year that estimated WFIRST was well above its proposed cost of $3.2 billion. NASA recently completed a replan of the mission, reducing some of its capabilities, in order to fit within a $3.2 billion cap.

“The Committee is concerned about the growing cost of the prime mission as noted by a recent independent examination,” the report stated, saying that NASA should take steps to optimize the mission’s efficiency by adopting lessons learned from other missions. It also endorsed one element of NASA’s revision of WFIRST, turning its coronagraph instrument into a technology demonstration.

It’s not clear what a reduced funding level like that proposed in the bill would do to WFIRST’s development, but it could potentially stretch out its development and increase its overall cost. At a meeting of the National Academies’ Space Studies Board May 3, Paul Hertz, director of NASA’s astrophysics division, said WFIRST was moving ahead on its current development path using the fiscal year 2018 funding the mission received despite uncertainty about its long-term future.

“We will have to see what we get for FY19 in an appropriation,” he said. “If it doesn’t match what’s required to meet the $3.2 billion, then we’ll have to make an adjustment, either descoping the mission or changing the cost cap.”

The report is silent on the fate of four Earth science programs also targeted for cancellation in the administration’s budget proposal. The report allocates $1.9 billion to Earth science programs, compared to the $1.78 billion in the request, but only mentions funding for one specific mission, a synthetic aperture radar mission being jointly developed with India’s space agency ISRO that was not proposed for cancellation in the request.

The bill does include funding for RESTORE-L, a satellite servicing mission under development by NASA that the 2019 budget proposal, as in 2018, sought to convert into a technology development effort at a lower level of funding. The report provides $130 million to RESTORE-L to allow it to proceed with a flight demonstration by 2021.

The committee made no changes to the funding for the James Webb Space Telescope, whose launch has been delayed by about a year, to May 2020, since the administration released its budget proposal in February. That delay could result in a breach of the mission’s $8 billion cost cap, although an independent assessment on the mission’s cost and schedule remains in progress.

Nonetheless, the committee criticized the delay. “The Committee is very concerned about the issues that are emerging at this late stage of JWST development and expects NASA to report to the Committee on a regular basis regarding efforts to ensure that this launch does not slip further,” it states. “These slips in the launch schedule are an enormous disappointment to the Committee.”

The committee offers full funding for many elements of NASA’s new exploration plans, including $150 million for its commercial low Earth orbit development effort, part of a longer-term effort to end NASA funding of the International Space Station in 2025. However, the report language suggests committee members want to continue operating ISS beyond that date, albeit under a different financial structure.

“The Committee reiterates that the International Space Station shall remain operational as long as it remains safe and operable,” the report states. “The Committee is supportive of the Administration’s efforts to find partners to pay for the future costs of the ISS.”

The committee is also worried about the two commercial crew vehicles under development, citing delays that threaten to push back crewed test flights to 2019. “The Committee remains concerned about the overall status of each of the programs and the number of top risks” as outlined in various reports and asks NASA to “notify the Committee immediately” of additional delays.

Spending for many of those exploration programs, including the Lunar Orbital Platform-Gateway and other lunar exploration efforts, is restricted by the bill, which withholds 50 percent of their funding until NASA submits a multi-year plan for development of the Gateway and plans to land robotic and crewed spacecraft on the moon.

“The Committee believes that without firm goals and specific years by which to achieve those goals, programs could drift and languish,” the report states, adding that lunar missions should serve as “risk reduction activities” for later missions to Mars.

“The Committee believes that human and robotic exploration of Mars and other destinations in our Solar System and beyond must be the goals of NASA — that striving to go farther into space pushes NASA and its academic and industry partners to be bold and aggressive.”

The report includes details on a number of other initiatives supported by the bill at NASA, from $150 million for nuclear thermal propulsion technology to $25 million to support smallsat technology development. Following language in a NASA authorization bill approved by the House Science Committee last month, the report allocates $10 million for NASA to search for “technosignatures” such as radio transmissions as part of NASA’s broader astrobiology research effort. That would be the first funding for a NASA project linked to the search for extraterrestrial intelligence, or SETI, in a quarter century.