Foust Forward | Expanding budgets for an expanding universe

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“Foust Forward” appears in every issue of SpaceNews magazine. This column ran in the April 8, 2019 issue.

For the last couple of weeks, most of the space community has been abuzz about Vice President Mike Pence’s speech March 26 directing NASA to return humans to the lunar surface in the next five years. There’s been intense speculation about how much this accelerated initiative will cost and what programs and companies will benefit.

Astronomers, meanwhile, have been grappling with their own big programs. At a March 27 meeting of the National Academies’ Committee on Astronomy and Astrophysics, NASA officials said the James Webb Space Telescope was still on track for a launch in two years. But Tom Young, who chaired the independent review last year that led to the $8.8 billion mission’s latest delay, warned the project appeared to be using schedule reserves at a high rate, casting new doubts on that schedule.

There’s little doubt, though, that JWST will eventually launch, even if the March 2021 date slips. The same isn’t the case for the Wide-Field Infrared Survey Telescope (WFIRST), NASA’s next flagship astrophysics mission. For the second year in a row, NASA proposed terminating the mission in its fiscal year 2020 budget request.

NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine defended that decision in an April 1 speech at an astrophysics workshop in the Washington suburbs. When a mission as big as JWST suffers overruns, “it cannibalizes other parts of what we’d like to do in astrophysics,” he argued. “When we think about WFIRST, it is in essence the casualty of James Webb.”

Congress rejected the attempt last year to cancel WFIRST, and many astronomers expect it to do the same this year. However, NASA officials said at the National Academies meeting that WFIRST will need significantly more money in 2020 to stay on schedule: about $542 million, versus the $312 million it received in 2019. If it falls short, NASA will have to either push back the mission’s 2025 launch date and increase its $3.2 billion cost cap or remove one of its instruments, a coronagraph.

Those issues were weighing on astronomers at the workshop as they looked ahead to next astrophysics decadal survey, Astro2020, which is now starting up. JWST was the top recommendation for flagship missions in the 2000 decadal survey, while WFIRST was the top flagship mission in 2010. Given the problems both missions have suffered, it would seem to raise doubts about the prospects of whatever might emerge from the next decadal.

Astronomers, though, weren’t as pessimistic as one might think. Many noted that the four flagship mission concepts under consideration have been more thoroughly studied than any of their predecessors, lowering technology and budget risks. NASA estimates that, given long-term budget projections, it should have about $5 billion available over the next decade for a future flagship mission.

Bridenstine, meanwhile, vowed to protect science budgets from the accelerated exploration program. “We will not get to the moon in 2024 if we start cannibalizing other parts of this agency,” he said, citing past political flights when that was attempted.

But that cannibalization could go in the other direction. When NASA submits its amended budget later this month, it’s likely to seek several billion dollars in additional funding to speed up SLS, Orion and lunar lander development, among other needs to achieve humans on the moon by 2024.

Some in Congress will no doubt try to divert some of that additional funding to restore NASA’s education program or science programs cut by the original budget request. One House member, Rep. Don Beyer (D-Va.), has already said he’ll seek to restore funding for WFIRST, asking appropriators in an April 1 letter to provide “at least $542 million” for the mission in 2020.

Paul Hertz, director of NASA’s astrophysics division, asked astronomers at the workshop to stay optimistic about the future, offering a slogan for the 2020 decadal survey: carpe posterum, or seize the future. “If you assume you’ll have a small budget,” he said, “you’re going to have a small program.”

But astronomers will need to work hard to get a larger budget this year, and likely the years to come.


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Jeff Foust writes about space policy, commercial space, and related topics for SpaceNews. His Foust Forward column appears in every issue of the magazine.