Astronomers Gravely Concerned About Proposed WFIRST Cancellation

Astronomers Gravely Concerned About Proposed WFIRST Cancellation

The American Astronomical Society (AAS) is expressing “grave concern” about the Trump Administration’s proposed termination of the Wide-Field Infrared Survey Telescope (WFIRST).  The concern is not only about the telescope itself, but the consensus-based Decadal Survey process that recommended it.  The astronomy and astrophysics communities have used Decadal Surveys to prioritize ground- and space-based astronomy research since the early 1960s.  AAS says it will defend the Decadal Survey process and fight the proposed termination of WFIRST and a 10 percent cut to NASA’s astrophysics budget.

Established in 1899, AAS is the major organization of professional astronomers in North America.  AAS President-Elect Megan Donahue (Michigan State University) said “We cannot accept termination of WFIRST, which was the highest-priority space-astronomy mission in the most recent decadal survey.”  The proposed 10 percent reduction to NASA’s astrophysics budget “amounting to nearly $1 billion over the next five years, will cripple US astronomy.”

The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine perform Decadal Surveys every 10 years (a decade) for each of NASA’s earth and space science disciplines: astronomy and astrophysics; earth science; planetary science; solar and space physics (heliophysics); and biological and physical sciences in space.  The top scientists and other experts in each discipline volunteer their time to be members of committees that spend approximately two years prioritizing the key scientific questions and what missions are needed to answer them.

Artist’s illustration of WFIRST. Credit: NASA.

WFIRST was the top priority of the most recent Decadal Survey for astronomy and astrophysics, New Worlds New Horizons, sometimes referred to as Astro2010.  NASA made a number of significant changes to the recommended design of the mission that caused concerns about cost growth.  Last fall, the head of NASA’s Science Mission Directorate, Thomas Zurbuchen, directed that the mission be descoped to keep its cost in check.  The results were expected to be released this month, but instead the Trump Administration’s budget request proposes that it be terminated.

Acting NASA Chief Financial Officer Andrew Hunter said at a media briefing on Monday that WFIRST is being cancelled because the money that would be needed to execute the project is being redirected to NASA’s human exploration program.   “We are trying to show some growth in the exploration activities of the agency in the out-years and those dollars are provided by [taking them from] activities like education and WFIRST and the earth science activities.”

WFIRST’s purpose is to advance research into dark energy and dark matter and discover new planets orbiting other stars (exoplanets).  It is a follow-on to the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) scheduled for launch next year, which itself is the follow-on to the Hubble Space Telescope.

JWST experienced significant cost growth, which an independent review blamed largely on management shortcomings.  Consequently, a separate management structure and budget line was created for JWST outside of the rest of NASA’s astrophysics portfolio.

In addition to proposing cancellation of WFIRST, the NASA FY2019 request merges JWST back into astrophysics and cuts the total amount of money available for both.  In last year’s budget, the projected FY2019 funding for JWST plus the rest of astrophysics was $1,350.4 million, with that combined amount remaining level through FY2022 as funding for JWST declined and the rest of astrophysics increased.  In the new budget request, the total for both is $1,185.4, remaining level through FY2023.  That is a difference of $165 million each year or $825 million over the 5-year run-out.

Donahue said AAS will work with Congress “to restore funding for WFIRST and for NASA astrophysics overall.”

AAS Executive Officer Kevin Marvel also worries that terminating WFIRST would “set a dangerous precedent and severely weaken a decadal survey process that has established collective scientific priorities for a world-leading program for half a century.”

Congress is strongly supportive of the Decadal Survey process, writing into law that NASA must contract with the Academies for those studies on a periodic basis as well as for mid-term reviews of how NASA is implementing the recommendations of each of the Surveys.

Congress has not completed work on the FY2018 budget request yet, but in action so far, both the House and Senate Appropriations Committees expressed concern about reported cost growth on WFIRST and support for NASA’s independent review, which was ongoing at the time.  The Senate committee recommended that NASA set a cost cap for the mission based on the results of that review.  They supported funding, however.  The request for FY2018 was $126.6 million.  The House approved that amount (and said it expected NASA to accommodate a Starshade technology demonstration mission as well), while the Senate committee recommended $150 million.

Correction:  due to a typographical error, an earlier version of this article misstated the astrophysics budget as $1,350.4 billion, instead of $1,350.4 million.

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