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Op-ed | The rocky landscape for astrophysics

WFIRST was the No. 1 rated large-scale mission in the 2010 decadal survey for astrophysics. Credit: NASA illustration

The Rocky Landscape for Astrophysics

The president’s fiscal year (FY) 2020 budget request for NASA takes aim – again – at the Wide-Field Infrared Survey Telescope (WFIRST). The WFIRST mission was the top-priority large space mission of the 2010 National Academies decadal survey in astronomy and astrophysics, and its cancellation essentially repudiates the entire decadal survey process. This action is being proposed on the heels of strong, bipartisan Congressional support, which appropriated “no less than $312,200,000 for WFIRST” in FY 2019. WFIRST is considered an essential tool in the astrophysics arsenal for understanding the universe in which we live.

Aside from the gaping hole in capabilities that WFIRST was uniquely designed to fill in the 2020s, the projected out-year budget delivers a knock-out punch to future U.S. leadership in space astrophysics. Just as the 2020 astrophysics decadal survey is beginning to ramp up its activities, the astrophysics community is going to have to take a step back and ask what value their highest priority consensus recommendations are worth when they’re ignored. While NASA has called for an “ambitious” 2020 decadal survey and supported four large, multibillion-dollar mission concept studies during the past several years, this FY 2020 budget request provides no resources for any future large mission. To be specific, this budget request (including Astrophysics plus the James Webb Space Telescope budget) for FY 2020 and accompanying five-year projection is $200-300 million below the equivalent Astrophysics budget from 15 years ago in FY 2005.

There’s a three-day symposium planned for early April 2019 called “The Space Astrophysics Landscape for the 2020s and Beyond.” Much of the first day of the symposium is devoted to the science and technical approaches to the four large mission concepts (called the Origins Space Telescope, Lynx, HabEx and LUVOIR). Indeed the community is going to have to grapple with defining what the point of even doing a decadal survey is when there are no resources to support the highest priority from the previous one. And relying on Congress to fix NASA’s astrophysics budget each year is no way to plan a decadal portfolio.

Perhaps in addition to appropriating funds for the FY 2020 budget, Congress could also provide the 2020 astrophysics decadal survey with alternative budgetary and programmatic guidance that reflects its expectations for the next decadal plan. The Astrophysics budget needs to be in the $1.6 – $1.8 billion range in order to support a balanced program of large, medium, and small missions carrying out the highest science priorities. This is what the Astrophysics budget would be if one simply increased the FY 2005 budget by inflation. The administration’s FY 2020 budget request falls far short of enabling this balance – nor does it maintain U.S. leadership in the 2020s and beyond.

Jon A. Morse is former director of the Astrophysics Division in the Science Mission Directorate at NASA Headquarters (2007-2011), and is currently the chief executive officer of the nonprofit BoldlyGo Institute and a research associate in the Solar, Stellar, and Planetary Sciences Division at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics.