WASHINGTON — Congressional language intended to accelerate work on a future NASA space telescope has the side effect of forcing the agency to disband a team it created to guide the mission’s early development.

NASA established last year two committees to support the early development of the Habitable Worlds Observatory, a large space telescope recommended by the Astro2020 decadal survey and projected to launch no earlier than the early 2040s.

One, the Technical Assessment Group (TAG), includes NASA personnel working on designs and key technologies for the spacecraft. The other, the Science, Technology, Architecture Review Team (START), includes primarily representatives from academia and industry to develop science objectives and instrument requirements for the mission.

The two groups started working last fall, but at a third joint meeting of the committees June 3 in Baltimore, Mark Clampin, director of NASA’s astrophysics division, said their efforts had been complicated by language in fiscal year 2024 omnibus spending bill enacted in March. The report accompanying the bill directed NASA to spend at least $10 million on Habitable Worlds Observatory this year as well as establish a project office for it at the Goddard Space Flight Center.

“This came as a surprise,” he said of the direction to establish the office. “We’ve had to do some thinking about how we put that into a plan we can move forward with.”

While the provisions show strong interest by Congress in the mission, he said they have “downsides” as well, specifically reorganizing how NASA had intended to guide early development of the observatory.

NASA created START with language requiring it to be disbanded when the project office is established, a provision intended to reduce conflicts of interest for future calls for industry contributions and science teams. Clampin said that provision would be enforced even with the earlier-than-expected creation of the project office.

“After consulting with the Headquarters legal team, we’ve come to the conclusion that we have to disband the START right now,” he said. “We’re required to do this because of all the legal concerns about conflicts going forward.”

That will not affect, he said, volunteer working groups that has been associated with START examining science cases for the observatory. “We do not want to lose all the work the working groups are doing,” he said. Those efforts will continue, reporting now directly to the project office, although Clampin said industry representatives on those working groups would need to step back to mitigate conflicts.

NASA is in the process of setting up the Habitable Worlds Observatory project office at Goddard, with the goal of having it in place by the end of the fiscal year in September. “It’s getting a lot of attention. We’re getting a lot of ‘are we there yet?’ calls from the Hill,” he said.

The early creation of the project office won’t affect the overall plan for the observatory, including an initial focus on maturing the technology needed for it before formally starting its development. “Don’t think that this is a major change in approach or strategy. It’s not,” Clampin said.

That approach includes funding work on those key technologies. NASA announced May 31 it awarded three contracts with a combined value of $17.5 million to BAE Systems, Lockheed Martin and Northrop Grumman to work on concepts such as “ultra-stable” optics and a deployable baffle for the telescope.

Clampin added that the direction to establish the observatory’s project office at Goddard doesn’t mean that other NASA centers will be excluded from working on the mission. “This is direction that we got from Congress and so we have to follow it, but we expect this to continue to be a very broad, diverse and inclusive program going forward.”

Jeff Foust writes about space policy, commercial space, and related topics for SpaceNews. He earned a Ph.D. in planetary sciences from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a bachelor’s degree with honors in geophysics and planetary science...