NASA missions press ahead despite budget uncertainty

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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.”