Editorial | Utilizing Gift Hardware Presents Challenge for NASA

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Occasionally it is possible to salvage some good from a fiasco, and the U.S. National Reconnaissance Office (NRO) has taken an important step in that direction by giving NASA a pair of satellite telescope assemblies for possible use on a future science mission. Several sources said the hardware was left over from the Future Imagery Architecture (FIA), the NRO’s infamously botched program to develop a new generation of optical and radar spy satellites.

Having taken ownership of the optical telescope hardware, which is in storage at the Rochester, N.Y., facilities of manufacturer ITT Exelis Geospatial Systems, NASA is now trying to figure out how to use it. The telescopes feature mirrors with 2.4-meter apertures, the same diameter as the mirror on NASA’s most productive scientific spacecraft ever, the Hubble Space Telescope.

This raises mouth-watering possibilities for a civil space agency whose astronomy budget has been all but consumed by Hubble’s massively overbudget successor, the infrared James Webb Space Telescope. One option is to use the NRO hardware as the basis for the Wide Field Infrared Survey Telescope, which has been identified as a top priority by astronomers but has been deferred indefinitely due to funding constraints at NASA.

There is, of course, a catch: To take advantage of its $100 million to $300 million windfall, NASA must come up with a much larger sum of money to develop and launch the mission. The telescopes themselves need some work, and NASA would need to procure a pretty big spacecraft that would have to be launched on a big and expensive rocket.

Nobody knows how much this would cost, but a $1 billion figure does not seem unreasonable given the likely scale of such a mission. Under the circumstances, NASA officials say they would be thrilled if they can muster the resources to fly just one of the telescopes.

The U.S. taxpayers will never fully recover their investment — likely north of $1 billion — in the failed optical portion of the FIA program. But it would be a nice consolation prize — not only to the public but also to those who expended a lot of effort trying to make FIA work — if at least one of the telescopes can find use in the scientific realm.

NASA must weigh whether developing a mission around the FIA hardware is the best use of its scarce resources; it might be that there’s potential for greater scientific return per dollar spent on a less expensive astronomy mission or set of missions. There is also a worst-case scenario in which NASA, in its eagerness to take advantage of the NRO’s gift, tries to develop a mission on a shoestring budget, only to find itself in a deeper financial hole if things do not go as planned.

The NRO has absolutely done the right thing here. Though it might seem like an obvious course of action, handing over extremely sensitive national security hardware to a civilian scientific agency is no trivial matter. It’s the type of thing U.S. government agencies should be looking to do more often. Another notable example is the X-37 reusable space plane originally developed by NASA but taken over by the U.S. Air Force, which is using it for classified missions.

But if NASA cannot devise a mission that it can pull off within available budgets with high confidence of success, it is better off keeping the hardware on the shelf, at least until its fiscal outlook brightens considerably.