NASA Pondering Future Standalone Flagship Program Offices

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WASHINGTON — NASA is considering whether future flagship science missions should be cordoned off into their own distinct program offices in the same way the budget-busting James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) was pulled out of the astrophysics division and put under the agency’s third in command.

“In general, with the big flagships, we’re having the discussion about how we treat them [and] should we treat them differently,” said NASA Associate Administrator Robert Lightfoot, the former Marshall Space Flight Center director who replaced Chris Scolese March 5 as the agency’s third highest official.

Rick Howard, NASA’s JWST program director, said those talks are “about 70 percent complete.”

Lightfoot and Howard spoke here the week of April 2 to the National Research Council’s Space Studies Board, an independent advisory panel staffed by scientists and former NASA officials.

After an independent report commissioned by Congress found that JWST was running years behind schedule and billions of dollars over budget, NASA took the program out of Science Mission Directorate’s astrophysics division last year and put it under the supervision of the NASA associate administrator, the agency’s top-ranking civil servant. The $8.8 billion program now has its own budget line, separate from the roughly $660 million the agency spends on the rest of its astrophysics portfolio.

Some scientists are asking whether all future NASA flagship science missions  should be managed in a similar fashion.

“NASA made some very special arrangements to protect that very important mission,” Space Studies Board Chairman Charles Kennel, a former NASA associate administrator, said during the board’s April 4 meeting. “That provoked, in our minds, the question, ‘should we in the future think of the very large science missions, those that are very complex and expensive … in a separate administrative category, with separate budgetary and administrative arrangements?”

This talk about managing future flagships took place against a NASA budgetary backdrop that makes no provision for starting any such big-ticket missions in the decade ahead.

President Barack Obama’s 2013 budget proposal, released in mid-February, would drop NASA funding slightly to $17.7 billion next year and keep it there through 2017. The agency’s planetary science budget, meanwhile, would drop $300 million next year to help offset a $100 million cash-infusion JWST needs to stay on track for its 2018 launch.

The planetary sciences cut is prompting NASA to withdraw from a joint Mars exploration campaign with the European Space Agency, which focused on returning a martian sample to Earth some time next decade.

Meanwhile, JWST’s cost-growth siphoned off funds that might otherwise have been used to start planning future astrophysics flagship missions. For example, the 2013 request contained no funds for the Wide-field Infrared Survey Telescope, the astrophysics community’s top-priority large-scale mission after JWST, which received $3 million of study money in 2011.

With JWST still six years and several billion dollars from launch and the $2.5 billion Mars Science Laboratory still en route to the red planet, White House budget officials told the Space Studies Board that NASA would be hard pressed to fund similarly big-ticket projects in the current fiscal environment.

“There’s less money to go around,” said Paul Shawcross, the White House Office of Management and Budget’s branch chief for science and space. “It’s going to be tough for astrophysics to fit in a really big mission until we’re done with James Webb, just based on budget. It would be really tough.”

One of Shawcross’ staffers, Joydip Kundu, said that the lack of a planetary science flagship likewise reflects the need to plan a NASA science program that can survive absent budget increases.

“The reason there isn’t necessarily an explicit commitment to do a flagship within planetary in the near term is really just because of our desire to try to make sure all the pieces across the agency are fitting together within a flat budget,” said Kundu, who handles NASA’s science budget.