WASHINGTON — A NASA-led review conducted in July at the behest of a powerful U.S. Senate appropriator concluded the agency followed proper procedure in deciding to cancel the Gravity and Extreme Magnetism Small Explorer (GEMS) X-ray telescope mission.

The seven-member GEMS Assessment Panel, chaired by Thomas Irvine, associate administrator for NASA’s Aeronautics Research Mission Directorate, found that “the process followed by the NASA Science Mission Directorate/Decision Authority was sound,” NASA Administrator Charles Bolden wrote in an Aug. 1 letter to Rep. Ralph Hall (R-Texas), chairman of the House Science Committee.

The letter accompanied the latest draft of NASA’s 2012 operating plan, a copy of which was obtained by Space News.

“As a result of the findings of the GEMS Assessment Panel, it is NASA’s intent to proceed, as planned, with the termination of the GEMS mission,” Bolden wrote.

NASA announced plans to cancel GEMS in early July, but the project team at the Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md., as well as spacecraft prime contractor Orbital Sciences Corp., Dulles, Va., lobbied against the decision.

Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.), chairwoman of the Senate Appropriations commerce, justice, science subcommittee, subsequently ordered the space agency to review its decision to cancel GEMS. For this task, NASA appointed a team of civil servants not affiliated with the mission, according to the group’s July 9 charter, a copy of which was obtained by Space News.

Canceling GEMS will free up $30 million worth of funding in 2012, most of which NASA wants to give to the Magnetospheric Multiscale (MMS) mission, a four-satellite heliophysics project slated to launch in 2014.

“NASA will apply $24.3 million to the Magnetospheric Multiscale mission (in the Heliophysics Solar Terrestrial Probes program), reducing schedule risk in [fiscal year] 2012,” the agency wrote in a June 20 draft of its 2012 operating plan. Both the June and August drafts include $194.6 million for MMS.

NASA science officials said they canceled GEMS because of unacceptable cost increases and probable schedule slippage stemming from developmental difficulties with the mission’s technically ambitious X-ray Polarimeter Instrument. The instrument was being built at Goddard. It would have flown on an Orbital-built spacecraft, along with X-ray mirrors mounted on extendable booms made by ATK Space Structures and Components of Goleta, Calif.

When GEMS was selected as an astrophysics Small Explorer-class mission in 2009, its cost was capped at $105 million. Cost estimates conducted earlier this year by the Aerospace Corp., El Segundo, Calif., and others found that GEMS was more likely to cost about $150 million. The GEMS team, in their July appeal to NASA officials at the agency headquarters here, said they could finish development for $135 million.

Meanwhile, Orbital had hoped to send GEMS to space aboard the company’s air-launched Pegasus XL rocket, a small satellite launcher for which business is drying up rapidly. The rocket, which can send 450 kilograms to low Earth orbit, launched NASA’s Nuclear Spectroscopic Telescope Array in June. That was the first Pegasus launch since 2008. In January, the rocket will launch NASA’s Interface Region Imaging Spectrograph, but Orbital sees no further launch opportunities after that until 2017.

Orbital has said it would be prohibitively expensive to maintain its Pegasus launch vehicle program without a mid-decade launch opportunity like GEMS. About 150 jobs would be at risk if the Pegasus program is shut down, Orbital has said.

Bolden, in his Aug. 1 letter to Congress, said that the GEMS Assessment Panel consulted with Jim Nelson, head of the NASA Launch Services Program, and found that “[t]here are no documented launch vehicle provider projections that would be negatively impacted by the termination of the GEMS project.”

Bolden added that NASA will “monitor the viability of the launch vehicle providers in an already fragile small payload/small launch vehicle market.”



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Dan Leone is a SpaceNews staff writer, covering NASA, NOAA and a growing number of entrepreneurial space companies. He earned a bachelor’s degree in public communications from the American University in Washington.