Hertz: WFIRST to Continue as Planned Until Congress Determines Its Fate

Hertz: WFIRST to Continue as Planned Until Congress Determines Its Fate

NASA Astrophysics Division Director Paul Hertz said today that the Wide-Field Infrared Survey Telescope (WFIRST) program will continue as planned until Congress decides its fate.  The Trump Administration has proposed terminating WFIRST in NASA’s FY2019 budget request because it wants to use that money to support other agency priorities.  Congress is only beginning its consideration of the FY2019 budget request. (It has not completed action on FY2018 yet).

Hertz spoke to the NSF-NASA-DOE Astronomy and Astrophysics Advisory Committee (AAAC) about NASA’s FY2019 request for astrophysics, including WFIRST.

NASA Astrophysics Division Director Paul Hertz. Credit: NASA

NASA’s priorities for astronomy and astrophysics, as well as other space and Earth science disciplines, are set by Decadal Surveys performed every 10 years (a decade) by expert committees established by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine.  WFIRST was identified as the top priority for a large “flagship” space telescope by the most recent astronomy and astrophysics Decadal Survey — New Worlds New Horizons — published in 2011.

WFIRST is a follow-on to the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST), which itself is a follow-on to the Hubble Space Telescope.  Hubble was launched in 1990.  JWST is scheduled for launch next year.  WFIRST is still in the design phase. Its purpose is to advance research into dark energy and dark matter and discover new planets around other stars (exoplanets).

WFIRST has encountered design and cost challenges because of significant changes made by NASA over the past several years, including use of a mirror gifted to NASA by the National Reconnaissance Office (NRO) and addition of a coronagraph.  It requested feedback from the Academies on those changes.  Two Academies reports, in 2014 and 2016, raised concerns about the cost and schedule impacts and an independent review last year confirmed that the cost had grown well beyond what was anticipated.

Cost growth and schedule delays that afflicted the JWST program have led to increased scrutiny of WFIRST.  The JWST program was restructured in 2011 following significant cost overruns attributed to poor program management.  The cost estimate for JWST ballooned to $8 billion for development with additional costs for operation and the schedule for launch slipped from 2013 to 2018.  Money that was intended to be used to initiate WFIRST had to be reallocated to JWST, delaying the start of WFIRST’s design and development.   JWST is currently scheduled for launch between March 30 and June 30, 2019, a 6-9 month delay because of spacecraft integration problems at prime contractor Northrop Grumman.

Intent on avoiding that scenario for WFIRST, NASA science head Thomas Zurbuchen required a downscoping of the WFIRST design last fall.

Hertz said today that the downscoped design brought the cost back down to the $3.2 billion NASA originally planned and has been accepted by NASA Headquarters.  Routine project reviews now are underway that would allow it to proceed into Phase B (preliminary design and technology completion) in April 2018.  NASA does not commit to a cost or schedule for a project like this until it is ready to enter Phase C (final design and fabrication) following a milestone review referred to as Key Decision Point-C (KDP-C).

Artists’s illustration of WFIRST. Credit: NASA

If Congress agrees with the Trump Administration to cancel WFIRST, Hertz said any remaining appropriated funds would be used for other NASA astrophysics activities including initiation of a small “probe” class project.  An Announcement of Opportunity (AO) for the probe will be issued in FY2019 if, and only if, Congress terminates WFIRST.

Hertz said it is an “open question” as to what Congress will do.  He noted that it has strongly supported the program so far, appropriating more than requested in some years and directing NASA to proceed with the program.

The American Astronomical Society has expressed “grave concern” about the proposed cancellation.

NASA’s astrophysics program has other challenges as well.  In addition to cancelling WFIRST, the budget request proposes merging JWST back into the same budget account as the other astrophysics missions.  The JWST program has had its own budget line since it was restructured in 2011 to improve project oversight.

The combined JWST and astrophysics budgets would decrease over the next 5 years according to the FY2019 request.  Some of the “wedge” of funding that was allocated to WFIRST would remain in the astrophysics account for yet-to-be-determined activities, but the rest would be reallocated to other NASA priorities including its plan to return humans to the surface of the Moon.  NASA told SpacePolicyOnline.com via email the amount that would be lost to astrophysics is $170 million per year.

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