NASA budget proposal seeks to cancel WFIRST

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Updated 7:45 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.

Andrew Hunter, NASA’s acting chief financial officer, said in a call with reporters that the decision to cancel WFIRST was intended to free up a growing “wedge” of funding planned for the mission in subsequent years, givne projects of flat funding beyond 2019. “With the budget staying flat in the out years, we were trying to show some growth in the exploration activities of the agency in the out years,” he said.

Hunter estimated $128 million of the WFIRST funding planned for 2019 — the agency’s 2018 budget proposal projected $302 million would be spent on the mission in 2019 — would remain in the Science Mission Directorate in general, or astrophysics in particular.

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. NASA projects spending $900 million on that commercial transition effort over the next five years.

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 which the budget document calls the Lunar Orbital Platform – 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.”

Hunter said that work on the first commercial lunar lander mission would start with a request for proposals due out in the next few months, with awards planned in fiscal year 2019. That would allow a launch as soon as 2019.

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, for launch in 2025. However, Hunter said the budget included no funding for a follow-on lander mission there.

“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.

Hunter said that $300 million was spread across agency programs, including planetary science, construction, exploration research and technology, accelerating a planned transition of NASA communications services to commercial satellites, and commercial cargo. Because the additional money came so late in the budget process, Hunter said detailed NASA budget documents, reflecting that additional $300 million, would not be available until Feb. 14.

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