In what some see as a possible prelude to its eventual cancellation, NASA has reduced 2006 funding for the WISE infrared space telescope mission by nearly 60 percent, despite giving the project a clean bill of health during a confirmation review in late 2005 .

The Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer (WISE), which NASA initially selected in 2002, underwent an extended study period before the U.S. space agency finally announced in late 2004 that the mission would proceed into the preliminary design phase with an eye toward launching in 2008.

The medium-class Explorer mission underwent its confirmation review in November and program officials had been expecting NASA’s approval to proceed into the detailed design and development phase of the project. But WISE team members learned earlier this month that approval is being held back until at least October, which will be the start of NASA’s new budget year.

Pam Marcum, the WISE program scientist at NASA headquarters here, said in an interview that the reasons for holding WISE back are purely budgetary. “We found absolutely no technical problems with WISE,” she said. “In fact everyone felt it was a healthy mission and ‘confirmable’ was the word that was used to describe it.”

Rather than give WISE an immediate green light to get started on the spacecraft’s detailed design and development, NASA told the team that formal confirmation would have to wait until January. “But that was before we really understood our budget,” Marcum said.

By the time the WISE team finally heard from NASA earlier this month, team members did not get the news they were expecting.

Marcum said NASA sent the WISE team a letter March 3 explaining that the project’s 2006 budget was being scaled back to $30 million, a nearly 60-percent reduction.

When WISE went in for review last November, the telescope was expected to be ready to launch in 2009 at a total mission cost of $300 million. Marcum said WISE’s cost and schedule would certainly be adversely affected by the unexpected budget cut but that it was too soon to say by how much.

“This is a very serious cut to the mission,” she said. “They are definitely going to have to replan.”

Marcum said NASA remains interested in seeing the mission through to completion.

“It’s still an ongoing mission as far as we are concerned, we are just having budget issues at the moment, which is why it is being cut,” Marcum said.

Edward Wright, the University of California at Los Angeles professor serving as the WISE principal investigator, said the budget cuts WISE has sustained over the past two years are leading to cost growth and schedule slips that ultimately make the project more vulnerable to cancellation.

“The budget fluctuations imposed on WISE have certainly delayed launch, increased overall runout costs and raise the specter of cancellation,” Wright said in an e-mail. “At the time WISE passed its initial confirmation review, we planned to launch in June 2008. But in the middle of [2005], our [fiscal year 2005] funds were cut by almost 50 percent. This led to a one-year launch slip to June 2009. Now in the middle of FY06 [fiscal year 2006], our FY06 funds have been cut by more than 50 percent even though the results of our confirmation review in November 2005 were favorable. This ‘ stop and go’ budgeting is wasteful and inefficient.”

The Pasadena, Calif.-based Jet Propulsion Laboratory is managing the WISE mission. Boulder, Colo.-based Ball Aerospace & Technologies Corp. is building the spacecraft bus. The Logan, Utah-based Space Dynamics Laboratory is building WISE’s primary instrument, a super-cooled infrared telescope.

Space Dynamics Laboratory Director Michael Pavich said the latest cuts to WISE’s budget are a significant setback, but that he has been given no reason to question NASA’s commitment to seeing WISE through to completion. “I don’t foresee uncertainty in the program,” he said. “I see a budget challenge that needs to be dealt with.”

Others, however, think WISE could be canceled if NASA decides to stick with the Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy (SOFIA), a telescope-equipped 747 jetliner that is over budget and behind schedule but is said by its contractor team to be within months of conducting its first test flight. While NASA has not canceled SOFIA, the agency included no money for the project it is 2007 budget request. SOFIA’s prime contractor, the Columbia, Md.-based Universities Space Research Association, has mounted a vigorous defense to stave off cancellation, and politicians from California and Texas appear poised to come to SOFIA’s aid.

Mary Cleave, NASA associate administrator for science, told the House Science Committee during a March 2 hearing that NASA will decide this spring whether to continue the SOFIA program. She said continuing SOFIA, which NASA thinks needs another $200 million to complete and at least $80 million a year to operate, would come at the expense of an Explorer-class mission.

Although Cleave did not mention WISE by name at the time, NASA officials said during a subsequent briefing that WISE is the mission that would be sacrificed for SOFIA. Such a move would be consistent with NASA’s practice of trying to solve budget problems within a given account before looking elsewhere for more money. SOFIA and WISE are both infrared telescopes funded under the agency’s astronomy and astrophysics program.

Including WISE, NASA currently has only four Explorer-class missions in development. Two of those missions, Aeronomy of Ice in the Mesosphere and the Time History of Events and Macroscale Interactions during Substorms are slated to launch this year. A fourth mission, the Interstellar Boundary Explorer, remains on track for a 2008 launch.