Trump Administration Refocuses NASA on Human Exploration, WFIRST is a Casualty

Trump Administration Refocuses NASA on Human Exploration, WFIRST is a Casualty

The Trump Administration released its FY2019 budget request today.  At first glance, it looks like good news for NASA — $19.9 billion.  At second glance, however, the projections for the next four years show a reduction to $19.6 billion and flat funding thereafter without an increase even for inflation.  In addition, it proposes killing the next large space telescope, WFIRST, because the money is needed to implement plans for future human exploration of the Moon and Mars.  Reaction from key congressional Democrats so far is not favorable.

On the good news front, the budget deal adopted by Congress last week  lifted previously-enacted budget caps for FY2018 and FY2019.  NASA got a windfall of $300 million for its FY2019 request at the last moment.  The budget overview released today reflects the addition, but NASA’s detailed budget book is still being revised and thus will not be available until Wednesday.  NASA Acting Chief Financial Officer Andrew Hunter said in a media teleconference today that the $300 million was distributed across several NASA budget accounts.

On the not so good news front, the $300 million is only for FY2019.  In FY2020, the projected NASA budget would go back down to $19.6 billion and stay there through FY2023 (the “out-years”).

NASA summary of its FY2019 budget request and the next four “outyears”. Extract from NASA presentation: []
That keeps NASA in its perennial box of trying to fit 10 pounds of potatoes into a 5-pound sack — directed to implement grand goals, but given insufficient funding to achieve them.

The FY2019 request leaves no doubt about the Trump Administration’s priority for NASA, putting NASA on a “path to return to the Moon with an eye towards Mars” as Acting NASA Administrator Robert Lightfoot said today in a “State of NASA” speech to the NASA workforce.  Of the $19.9 billion request, $10.5 billion is for human exploration. Details remain fuzzy about how NASA will proceed, however, other than an intent to involve international and industry partners.

The first launch of the Space Launch System and an uncrewed Orion (Exploration Mission-1 or EM-1) now officially slips to 2020 (most recently from 2018).   The first SLS/Orion with a crew, EM-2, is now officially back to 2023 (NASA had been aiming for 2021).  For the past year NASA has been discussing a Deep Space Gateway orbiting the Moon as a first step.  That now is called the Lunar Orbiting Platform-Gateway and its first element, a power and propulsion module, would be launched in 2022.  What happens after that and the relative roles of NASA and its partners is to be determined.

Conceptual illustration of the Wide-Field Infrared Space Telescope (WFIRST); Credit: NASA.

One consequence of the focus on human exploration is that other NASA activities are subject to cancellation. The first casualty in the FY2019 request is the Wide-Field Infrared Space Telescope (WFIRST).  NASA is proposing that it be terminated not just because its costs have been growing, but because it requires a “wedge” of funding in the future that NASA needs for its human exploration program.

Hunter said that the proposed cancellation of WFIRST, five earth science missions, and closure of the education office are because the money is needed for exploration.  “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.”

NASA proposed terminating the earth science missions (PACE, OCO-3, CLARREO-Pathfinder, NASA’s part of DSCOVR, and RBI) and the education office last year, but WFIRST is new.

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 Decadal Survey to succeed the James Webb Space Telescope currently scheduled for launch next year.  Although WFIRST has encountered challenges largely due to design changes dictated by NASA in excess of what the Academies recommended, support for the telescope in the scientific community remains strong.

WFIRST’s purpose is to advance research into dark energy and dark matter and discover new planets orbiting other stars (exoplanets). Princeton astrophysicist David Spergel, who chaired one of the panels for the Decadal Survey and later chaired the Academies’ Space Studies Board, tweeted today that terminating WFIRST would abandon U.S. leadership in these fields.

Historically, Decadal Surveys have been described as “bibles” for NASA’s science programs because they represent a consensus of the science community on the most important scientific questions and what space missions are needed to answer them.  Congress values the reports for the same reason.  Typically NASA tells the expert committees when they begin their deliberations how much money it expects to have available over the next decade and the committees work from there as to what missions to propose. While there is no guarantee that their recommendations will be followed because budget projections are fraught with uncertainty, generally speaking NASA and Congress follow those priorities.

A number of changes were made by NASA to the WFIRST design and it requested feedback from the Academies on those changes.  Two Academies reports, in 2014 and 2016, raised concerns about the cost and schedule impacts of those changes and an independent review released last year led NASA science head Thomas Zurbuchen to require a downscoping.  But cancellation was not anticipated.

Tom Young, who was a member of the Decadal Survey committee and served on the 2014 and 2016 committees as well, reacted to the proposed cancellation today via email to “Failure to fund WFIRST in the NASA FY 19 Budget Proposal is a major disappointment and has very negative implications on the Decadal Survey process.”

Science is not the only program in exploration’s cross-hairs.  As reported already, NASA is proposing to terminate direct support for the International Space Station (ISS) in 2025.  It wants to facilitate commercial alternatives in low Earth orbit (LEO) where NASA could be one of several customers instead of operating a LEO facility itself, which costs approximately $4 billion per year.  The budget request proposes $150 million in FY2019 and additional sums in future years (a total of $900 million over 5 years) to assist commercial companies, but what exactly it will be spent on is yet to be determined.

Eric Stallmer, President, Commercial Spaceflight Federation (CSF). Credit: CSF website.

The Commercial Spaceflight Federation (CSF) reacted negatively to the idea of ending NASA support for ISS, however.  CSF President Eric Stallmer said in an emailed statement today that “a premature termination of the ISS would harm the scientific community, American industry, and, most importantly, the Nation’s ambitions to be the world’s leader in deep space exploration.”  ISS should be operated until there is a “sustainable orbital economy, more likely to be in place by 2028” and take advantage of the commercial sector to “streamline ISS operations and reduce costs” in the meantime.

The Coalition for Deep Space Exploration also expressed reservations.  Coalition President Mary Lynne Dittmar said that while the emphasis on exploration is “welcome,” the Coalition is concerned about the proposed cancellation of WFIRST and hopes that the future of ISS ensures a transition that “incorporates the myriad constituencies and functions currently served by the ISS – including its role as an Exploration testbed.”

Senator Bill Nelson (D-FL), the top Democrat on the Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee, called the budget request a “non-starter.”  “If we’re ever going to get to Mars with humans on board and return them safely, then we need a larger funding increase for NASA.  The proposal would also end support for the International Space Station in 2025 and make deep cuts to popular education and science programs.  Turning off the lights and walking away from our sole outpost in space at a time when we’re pushing the frontiers of exploration makes no sense.”

His House counterpart, Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-TX), top Democrat on the House Science, Space, and Technology Committee, rejected not only the Trump priorities for NASA, but for other science agencies. “When I was first briefed on ‘highlights’ of President Trump’s budget request, I was incredulous at its treatment of our federal science agencies. To propose slashing EPA’s budget and DOE’s EERE, eliminating NASA’s education programs and several Earth science instruments and missions, and cutting NOAA’s oceans and atmospheric programs, just to name a few of the damaging proposals in this document, shows that this Administration has no appreciation for the role that these agencies play in driving the economy, keeping our nation competitive, and protecting the environment and public health.   The only good thing about this budget is that it’s so extreme, I have no doubt that it will be summarily rejected by both sides of the aisle.”

NASA posted a summary of its budget request on its website today.  As noted, the detailed budget books will be posted Wednesday.

NASA also is reorganizing itself and those details will be revealed later.  Lightfoot said work performed by the Space Technology Mission Directorate (STMD) will be integrated with technology development efforts curently part of the Human Exploration and Operations Mission Directorate.  STMD Associate Administrator Steve Jurczyk has been tasked with making recommendations on how to accomplish the reorganization.  For now, the “Space Technology” account no longer appears in the budget request.  It has been merged with portions of the Exploration budget and is now called “Exploration Research and Technology.”  “Space Operations” is renamed “LEO and Space Flight Operations.”  “Exploration” is renamed “Deep Space Exploration Systems.”  In an unmistakable symbolic change, all the human exploration accounts now come before science, which used to be first.

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