Culberson Supports WFIRST, But…

Culberson Supports WFIRST, But…

Rep. John Culberson (R-Texas) expressed support for NASA’s Wide-Field Infrared Survey Telescope (WFIRST) at a meeting on Capitol Hill on Friday, but added that he hopes NASA can come up with a less expensive design.  The Trump Administration wants to cancel WFIRST.  Culberson chairs the House subcommittee that funds NASA and rejected that idea,  but provided only about half of the money needed to keep the project on schedule.

Culberson spoke at a meeting of the Space Transportation Association (STA).  NASA’s Associate Administrator for the Science Mission Directorate, Thomas Zurbuchen, also spoke there.

Rep. John Culberson (R-TX), chairman of the House Appropriations Commerce-Justice-Science subcommittee.

Asked about his decision to provide only half the needed funding for WFIRST in FY2019, Culberson replied that he is “very supportive” of the project, but worried about the cost.  He praised Zurbuchen for successfully tasking JPL to develop an affordable design for the technologically-challenging Europa Lander mission and expressed hope that rethinking WFIRST can keep its costs in check.  “By challenging the engineers to push the edge of the envelope they came back with actually a more capable spacecraft that could do more science on the surface of Europa for less money… I think it is also possible to do the same thing with WFIRST.”

However, he also insists that WFIRST have an “enhanced” coronagraph and be starshade compatible.  Those are two of the features driving up the cost.

Culberson is an ardent supporter of NASA’s science portfolio and together with his Senate counterparts has increased funding for it above presidential requests in each of the past several years.  Most of that is to support the Europa Clipper and Europa Lander missions.  He proudly points out that he put into law that NASA must execute those missions, with launches in 2022 and 2024 respectively on NASA’s new Space Launch System.

His passion for sending probes to Europa is because he believes life exists in the ocean under its icy crust.  He joked that he hopes “it’s going to snow frozen krill” on the Europa Lander.  Studying Europa and other “ocean worlds” in the solar system is part of his broader plan to search for life in the universe.  Therefore he also is very supportive of astrophysics, particularly the search for exoplanets, one of WFIRST’s goals.

As he recounted at the STA meeting, he has set in motion a 51-year plan for NASA’s investments in science and technology to find other life: study Ocean Worlds in the solar system; identify the first exoplanet with signs of life in its atmosphere using space telescopes with starshades; develop interstellar propulsion; and launch a robotic space mission in 2069 (the 100th anniversary of the Apollo 11 landing) to visit an exoplanet where life may exist.

Artist’s illustration of a starshade in front of a space telescope. Credit: NASA

His insistence on starshade compatability for WFIRST is to increase the chances of finding Earth-like exoplanets.  Starshades block the light from a star so scientists can better see what is nearby — like orbiting planets.  Coronagraphs do the same thing, but are internal to the telescope, so are much smaller. A starshade is a separate spacecraft that is positioned in space between the space telescope and the star.  Starshades would enable direct imaging of exoplanets instead of the current method of inferring the existence of planets by measuring the dimming of light as they pass in front of their stars.

As recommended in the most recent astrophysics Decadal Survey, WFIRST was a $1.6 billion mission.  NASA made a number of design changes that, together with inflation, increased its costs to nearly $4 billion. The changes included adding a coronagraph, but NASA recently had to downscope the project to fit within an internally set $3.2 billion cost cap so the coronagraph now is only a technology demonstrator instead of part of the scientific requirements. Culberson’s comment that he wants an “enhanced” coronagraph may indicate that he does not agree with that decision.  No funding has been allocated to build a starshade, but by making WFIRST starshade compatible, it could take advantage of one someday.

Culberson gave no hint as to how WFIRST’s costs could be constrained yet still meet his demands.

WFIRST is the successor to the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST), which itself is the successor to the Hubble Space Telescope.  Another challenge for WFIRST is that it is under JWST’s shadow.  JWST suffered repeated cost overruns and schedule delays early on and is now in trouble again.  NASA is supposed to report to Congress by the end of this month on a new schedule and cost estimate for JWST.  The launch already is delayed at least from October 2018 to May 2020, and it could breach a congressionally-imposed $8 billion development cost cap.  Ensuring that WFIRST does not follow in JWST’s path is a top priority for NASA and Congress.

Last year’s budget request projected that WFIRST would need $302 million in FY2019 to meet NASA’s schedule of launch in 2025.  The Trump Administration proposed terminating it because it is too expensive in light of other agency priorities such as human exploration of the Moon.  In marking up the FY2019 Commerce-Justice-Science (CJS) appropriations bill, Culberson recommended $150 million.  The full House Appropriations Committee agreed.  The bill is awaiting floor action.  Culberson said he hopes to get the bill to the floor “as soon as possible” and to ensure there are no amendments to the NASA section.  Overall, Culberson’s bill allocates $21.546 billion for NASA, which is $1.654 billion more than the Trump Administration requested and $810 million more than FY2018.  The science portion is $6.681 billion, which is $786 million more than requested.

The Senate Appropriations Committee will mark up its version of the bill this week.  Subcommittee markup is on Tuesday and full committee on Thursday. Its recommendation for WFIRST therefore should be known in the next several days.  WFIRST is managed by NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, MD.  One of Maryland’s Senators, Chris Van Hollen, is a member of the Senate CJS subcommittee and Goddard-managed programs often do well in that subcommittee.

MiMi Aung, Project Manager, Mars Helicopter, Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL). Credit: NASA.

Culberson also enthused about the Mars Helicopter that will be flown on Mars 2020 as a technology demonstrator.  It is one of those “transformational technologies that will galvanize the excitement of Americans and humans all over the planet.” He is widely credited with getting it added to the mission despite a lack of enthusiasm among some scientists.  On Friday, he praised its lead engineer, MiMi Aung, who he said came to the United States as a “penniless immigrant” from Burma and now is designing the first heavier-than-aircraft for another planet.  It is a “great American success story.”

Zurbuchen addressed the issue of opposition to Mars Helicopter.  He said scientists objected to the idea of building rovers because they thought they could accomplish everything they needed to do using stationary landers.  Now rovers have demonstrated their utility and he expects Mars Helicopter will similarly prove the value of aircraft.  “That’s what innovation is about.”  For now, Mars Helicopter is only a technology demonstration to learn how to fly on Mars. Although it is not being designed to conduct science, NASA will get as much science out of it as possible.

He also talked about Thursday’s announcement that NASA’s Mars Curiosity rover detected organic molecules in ancient Martian rocks and seasonal variations in methane levels in the atmosphere.  He stressed that NASA has not discovered life, however.  Geological or biological processes could be involved.  The results are just one step.  “Searching for life is not about a yes/no question, it’s about an investigation of a whole type of science.”

Asked about the new Lunar Discovery and Exploration program to enable public-private partnerships to send landers and rovers to the lunar surface, Zurbuchen estimated there are five to eight U.S. companies with “a real shot of getting us to the Moon. … We’re betting on them.”  He does not expect all to succeed, however: “50 percent is success in this case.”

As for the payloads for those landers, he said some of the Resource Prospector instruments are “really valid,” but that mission needs to be aligned with today’s strategic thrusts.  It would use a rover, and he is asking two questions about rovers: how long they should live (which will drive cost) and what partnerships are possible.  Asked whether NASA is looking at sending landers to the far side of the Moon, which is the focus on China’s upcoming Chang’e-4 mission, he said the far side “clearly will be part of this” but is “not on my schedule” right now. [UPDATE, June 11, 2018:  NASA released a Request for Information (RFI) for the availability of lunar payloads today. Responses are due June 27, 2018.] live tweeted the STA meeting.  Check our Twitter feed @SpcPlcyOnline for more snippets.


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