NASA renames WFIRST space telescope after pioneering woman astronomer

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WASHINGTON — NASA announced May 20 it is renaming a major space telescope under development after an astronomer who led the agency’s early work in space-based astronomy, even as the mission remains under threat of cancellation.

The agency announced that the Wide Field Infrared Survey Telescope (WFIRST) will now be known as the Nancy Grace Roman Space Telescope. Roman, who passed away in 2018, joined NASA in 1959 as its first chief of astronomy, working for the agency for 20 years.

While at NASA, she oversaw the development of an initial series of astrophysics missions, the Orbital Astronomical Observatories, launched from 1966 through 1972 to demonstrate that spacecraft were capable of carrying out observations not possible from the ground.

She also started an initiative in the mid-1960s to develop what was then called the Large Space Telescope, a mission that evolved into the Hubble Space Telescope. Those initial efforts led her to be called the “Mother of Hubble,” a title bestowed on her by Ed Weiler, a former Hubble chief scientist who later served as NASA associate administrator for science.

“It is because of Nancy Grace Roman’s leadership and vision that NASA became a pioneer in astrophysics and launched Hubble, the world’s most powerful and productive space telescope,” NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine said in a statement. “I can think of no better name for WFIRST, which will be the successor to NASA’s Hubble and Webb Telescopes.”

“Dr. Roman really deserves to be permanently associated with this amazing mission that she really helped enable,” Thomas Zurbuchen, current NASA associate administrator for science, said in a prerecorded “NASA Science Live” video to announce the new name of WFIRST. “I’m so delighted to have that name there as a lasting legacy to this amazing person.”

The Roman Space Telescope will fly a mirror 2.4 meters in diameter, the same as Hubble, but with a far wider field of view. The mission, the top large-scale space mission from the 2010 astrophysics decadal survey, will study dark energy and exoplanets.

“It’s a mark of how far that the mission has come that we are being renamed,” said Julie McEnery, deputy project scientist for the Roman Space Telescope, in the NASA video. “It says something about how far the development of the mission is, that we’re a real thing.”

The Roman Space Telescope, though, has an uncertain future. Facing the prospect of major cost overruns early in its development, despite cost-saving measures such as the use of a primary mirror donated to NASA by the National Reconnaissance Office, NASA pushed for changes to the mission in 2017 to get it within a cost cap of $3.2 billion. That included converting one of the telescope’s major instruments, a coronagraph that blocks starlight to enable observations of exoplanets and dust disks, into a technology demonstration with less rigorous and costly requirements.

Despite those cost-cutting efforts, NASA sought no funding for the mission in its last three budget proposals, for fiscal years 2019, 2020 and 2021. “The Administration is not ready to proceed with another multi-billion-dollar telescope until Webb has been successfully launched and deployed,” NASA said in its fiscal year 2021 budget request in February.

Congress rejected the proposed termination of the mission in its 2019 and 2020 final appropriations bills, allowing the mission to proceed with plans for a launch in the mid-2020s. Congress has yet to take up any fiscal year 2021 spending bills because of delays in the appropriations process caused by the coronavirus pandemic. The mission would need $505.2 million in fiscal year 2021 to remain on schedule.

The NASA video made no reference to the uncertain funding for the Roman Space Telescope. “It is not included in the Fiscal Year 2021 budget request, as the administration wants to focus on completing the James Webb Space Telescope,” the agency stated at the end of a lengthy news release about the renaming of the mission.

Work on the Roman Space Telescope has continued amid that uncertainty. NASA announced March 2 that it passed a review called Key Decision Point C, with a baseline cost through launch of $3.2 billion. The cost when including five years of science operations, as well as the coronagraph technology demonstration that is accounted for separately, increases to $3.934 billion.

At a March 31 meeting of the Committee on Astronomy an Astrophysics of the National Academies’ Space Studies Board, Paul Hertz, director of NASA’s astrophysics division, said there were some disruptions to work on WIFRST because the pandemic has stopped all but mission-essential activities at NASA centers. Some work, though, was continuing on elements of the mission at contractor facilities.