Roman Space Telescope top challenge for new NASA astrophysics director

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WASHINGTON — The person tapped to be the next head of NASA’s astrophysics division says his top priority is to keep the agency’s next large space telescope on schedule and within its budget.

NASA announced July 14 that Mark Clampin would take over as director of NASA’s astrophysics division, effective Aug. 15. He succeeds Paul Hertz, who announced last year his intent to step down from the position after a decade. Hertz will remain at the agency as a senior adviser to Thomas Zurbuchen, NASA associate administrator for science.

Clampin is currently director of the science and exploration directorate at the Goddard Space Flight Center. He previously led the center’s astrophysics division and also worked on the Hubble Space Telescope, James Webb Space Telescope and Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite missions.

During a meeting of the agency’s Astrophysics Advisory Committee July 21, Clampin said a key priority for him is to keep the Nancy Grace Roman Space Telescope on track for a launch as soon as October 2026. The 2.4-meter telescope is the next large, or flagship, astrophysics mission after JWST.

“For me, the number one challenge is making sure that we keep the Roman Space Telescope on track,” he said, including “staying ahead of the fires” or problems that crop up during its development.

Hertz previously said that keeping Roman on cost and schedule was critical to winning support for future space telescopes, such as the line of missions proposed by the Astro2020 decadal survey last year. Clampin offered a similar view.

“People are watching how we do on Roman as an example of whether we can do a good job in the future,” he said. “The Roman science is important and it’s also important that we demonstrate that we can stay on track on this telescope as we put it together. That would be my highest priority.”

NASA is starting efforts to plan for the next flagship mission after Roman, currently envisioned as a large infrared, optical and ultraviolet space telescope designated IROUV. A new effort, the Great Observatories Mission and Technology Maturation Program or GOMAP, is getting underway to define science goals and advance key technologies need for the mission.

Clampin said he was getting a briefing soon on GOMAP. “One of the important lessons I want to bring to this endeavor is to make sure that we really focus on the science goals and don’t let the science scope of this mission expand too much,” he said. “One of my lessons learned from Webb is that ends up coming at the expense of a lot of additional costs.”

A near-term challenge he faces is budget pressures on NASA’s portfolio of astrophysics missions. A spending bill approved by House appropriators last month would provide $1.525 billion for astrophysics in fiscal year 2023, slightly less than the request. With full funding allocated to several major programs, including Roman, Hubble and JWST, and an increase in closeout funding for the SOFIA airborne observatory, other parts of astrophysics are facing a $51 million cut should those funding levels stand in the final version of the bill, Hertz told the committee July 20.

Clampin acknowledged concerns about the budget but said that public interest in the field, stimulated by the first science images from JWST released earlier in the month, can help win support for other astrophysics programs.

“One of the great strengths we have is that what we do in astrophysics really engages with the general public, with our stakeholders on the Hill. Everybody gets excited,” he said. He recalled a recent meeting at Capitol Hill with congressional officials about JWST. “They are all really excited about James Webb. You talk to them about the science, they’re jazzed by that. And then the next question is, ‘What are you doing next? What’s the next big technical challenge for the nation in the astrophysics?’”