Op-ed | The Approaching Battle over the JWST Budget Wedge

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I have been telling my colleagues in the space science community for the past several years that there is considerable risk to the future astrophysics portfolio at NASA, and possibly the entire space science enterprise, as a result of the James Webb Space Telescope re-programming, which moved it out of the Astrophysics Division and now is a target in the Science Mission Directorate budget.

The March 24 opening statement from Rep. Steven Palazzo (R-Miss.), the chairman of the House Science space subcommittee and newly appointed member of  the House Appropriations Committee, during his JWST hearing shows that this indeed a major cause for concern.

An excerpt from Rep. Palazzo’s opening statement reads:

“Even after launch, issues related to JWST will remain. For instance, what will happen to the additional funding poured into the Science Mission Directorate to cover JWST over-runs?

Will the Astrophysics account maintain funding profiles consistent with these augmentations? Will the other programs and projects within the Science Mission Directorate return to their historical proportions after JWST is launched? Will Exploration programs recoup the funding transferred to the JWST program, or will these proportions represent the new norm?

With overall budgets remaining flat or only increasing marginally, how the over $600 million a year devoted to JWST will be reallocated after launch is one of the most important decisions facing NASA and Congress.

In light of decreasing budget requests from the Administration for Exploration, it may be appropriate to reconstitute the programs that sacrificed funding to cover JWST cost growth.”

Rep. Palazzo misses the mark on several key assertions. Here are some budgetary facts:

  • The proper “historical” budget for Astrophysics is $1.4 billion per year. This was the approximate budget for the Astrophysics Division during federal fiscal years 2004-2008.
Chart from NASA Astrophysics Division Director Paul Hertz's NASA Town Hall presentation at the American Astronomical Society's January meeting in Seattle.
Chart from NASA Astrophysics Division Director Paul Hertz’s NASA Town Hall presentation at the American Astronomical Society’s January meeting in Seattle.

 

  • During FY 2009-2010, the total Astrophysics budget dropped precipitously by over $300 million per year, as funds were transferred out of the Astrophysics Division to other programs. This transfer is obvious in the five-year budget forecasts in the FY 2010 White House budget request, where planned increases to the Science Mission Directorate budget during FY2011-2014 completely neglected Astrophysics. If the Astrophysics Division had been allowed to maintain its $1.4 billion budget level, there would have been no need for funds to be transferred from anywhere outside of Astrophysics to cover JWST’s far more realistic cost and schedule plan implemented in 2011 and beyond.

    The 5-year budget projection included in NASA's FY2010 budget request.
    The 5-year budget projection included in NASA’s FY2010 budget request.
  •  NASA’s space science portfolio – that includes the Astrophysics, Planetary Science and Heliophysics Divisions – has had a flat combined budget for 8 years. The graph below shows the percentage change in the space and Earth science components of the Science Mission Directorate budget (using real-year dollars) since the last year of the Bush Administration.There has been essentially no growth for space science, not even keeping up with very modest 1-2 percent inflation.NASA_Earth_Space_Science Funding

     

  • Meanwhile, since the nadir of the Astrophysic Division’s 22 percent budget cut, the combined Astrophysics and JWST budget has been significantly below its historical level of $1.4 billion a year – a level that is necessary for implementing the balanced program recommended in the 2010 astronomy and astrophysics decadal survey.Both current and projected future budgets remain approximately $70 million a year (half of a Small Explorer mission) below that level for the foreseeable future. This the strange fate of one of the planet’s highest-performing science organizations that in the next month will celebrate the 25th anniversary of the Hubble Space Telescope and the 2015 National Air and Space Museum Trophy being awarded to the Kepler mission.

My space science colleagues and I all recall vividly the transfer of roughly $3 billion of the Science budget’s future projected growth to Exploration in the 2006 time frame. This ignited a maelstrom of protests from the science community, which generally went unheeded for the balance of the Bush Administration. The data show that the space science budget has not recouped any of its resources from that time frame, and the assertion that the Science budget somehow owes the Exploration budget is farcical.

There is little question that NASA’s Science program is a national treasure, consistently inspiring the nation with frontier discoveries, and not an appropriate place to address putative funding shortfalls for an Exploration program that Rep. Palazzo has recently characterized as “plagued with instability from constantly changing requirements, budgets, and missions.” Instead Rep. Palazzo should perhaps look at other areas of NASA with significant budgets that didn’t even exist six years ago to “recoup” Exploration funds if he is not willing to bolster the overall NASA budget.

Jon Morse was the Astrophysics Division’s director at NASA Headquarters from 2007-2011. He is now chief executive officer of the BoldlyGo Institute, Inc., a nonprofit space science research company seeking private funding to fly frontier scientific missions that augment and enhance the government’s space science portfolio.