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WFIRST, proposed for cancellation, is approved for development

NASA says both the House and Senate funding levels for WFIRST in their respective spending bills would allow the mission to continue, but the lower amount in the Senate bill could force the mission to replan and delay its 2025 launch. Credit: NASA

Updated 9:20 a.m. Eastern with NASA comment on cost.

BROOMFIELD, Colo. — NASA has approved a major astrophysics mission to go into the next phase of its development even as the administration seeks once again to cancel it.

NASA announced March 2 that the Wide Field Infrared Survey Telescope (WFIRST) has passed a review known as Key Decision Point C, which confirms development plans for the mission and allows it to move into full-scale hardware production and testing.

That milestone is when the agency also sets a baseline cost and schedule commitment for the mission. NASA said in its statement about the review that the mission would cost $3.2 billion through its launch, a cost cap previously set by NASA. The cost when including five years of science operations, as well as a coronagraph instrument deemed a technology demonstration by NASA, increases to $3.934 billion.

However, NASA did not announce a launch date for the mission because its fiscal year 2021 budget request proposes to cancel WFIRST. “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 statement, a reference to the James Webb Space Telescope scheduled for launch in March 2021. NASA used the same statement in its 2021 budget request to explain why it sought no funding for the mission.

This is not the first time that the administration has sought to terminate WFIRST. NASA’s fiscal year 2019 and 2020 budget proposals sought no funding for the mission, citing a lack of appetite to pursue a flagship-class mission like WFIRST given the delays and overruns for JWST. In both cases, Congress overruled the administration and provided funding for WFIRST, including $510.7 million in 2020.

Astronomers have fought to preserve WFIRST, citing its standing as the top-ranked large astrophysics mission in the 2010 astrophysics decadal survey, and with the ability to perform research on topics ranging from dark energy to exoplanets. Scientists are again rallying to save WFIRST.

“While WFIRST is on schedule and on budget for a Fall 2025 launch, we need to again ask Congress to restore the mission to the Federal Budget,” said David Spergel, an astrophysicist at Princeton University and the Flatiron Institute who co-chairs the WFIRST science team, in a March 2 tweet.

Spergel cited a “dear colleague” letter being circulated by Rep. Don Beyer (D-Va.) requesting support from other members of Congress to restore WFIRST funding. “WFIRST is a key piece in maintaining the nation’s leadership in space,” Beyer wrote in the letter, citing the science it could perform and its endorsement in the 2010 decadal survey.

NASA spokesperson Felicia Chou said March 3 that the Key Decision Point C review projected that WFIRST would be ready for launch “by 2026.” Beyer’s letter asked House appropriators to provide $505.2 million for the mission in 2021, and Chou said March 4 that $505.2 million was the amount required for WFIRST in fiscal year 2021 to stay on schedule.

Jeff Foust writes about space policy, commercial space, and related topics for SpaceNews. He earned a Ph.D. in planetary sciences from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a bachelor’s degree...