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While NASA’s 2019 budget request proposed canceling WFIRST, the agency’s administrator now says he’s “90 percent” confident it will continue. (credit: NASA)

WFIRST’s second chance

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There’s a saying often used in the space community that you’re not a real NASA mission until you’ve been threatened with cancellation. There is some truth to that: many NASA missions that ultimately were successful faced the threat of termination, either by the agency or Congress. For example, the new book Chasing New Horizons is filled with near-death experiences for the New Horizons mission to Pluto (see “Review: Chasing New Horizons”, The Space Review, April 30, 2018)

Congress, in the report accompanying its 2018 funding bill, “rejects the cancellation of scientific priorities recommended by the National Academy of Sciences decadal survey process” like WFIRST.

NASA’s Wide-Field Infrared Survey Telescope (WFIRST) is the latest mission seeking to join that club. In a move that took many by surprise, the administration’s 2019 budget request proposed terminating the mission. The agency argued that that funding projected for WFIRST—$302 million in 2019 alone, growing to more than $400 million a year in 2020 and beyond—could be better spent on other, smaller, astrophysics missions, with some of that funding diverted into exploration programs (see “Will WFIRST last?”, The Space Review, February 19, 2018).

As the astronomy community geared up to fight that request, they got one piece of good news. Congress, which had yet to complete its fiscal year 2018 spending bills when the 2019 proposal was released, finally passed an omnibus spending bill in March. It could have chosen to accelerate the administration’s plan by denying any funding for WFIRST in 2018, but instead provided the mission with $150 million, above the administration’s original request of $126.6 million.

The report accompanying that omnibus spending bill brought up the independent review into WFIRST’s cost growth that triggered a series of changes to the mission and called for “a preliminary life cycle cost estimate” within 60 days of the bill’s enactment.

However, it included language indirectly supporting the mission as well as Earth science missions also saved from termination: “The agreement reiterates the importance of the decadal survey process and rejects the cancellation of scientific priorities recommended by the National Academy of Sciences decadal survey process.” WFIRST was the top-ranked flagship, or large, space mission from the 2010 astrophysics decadal survey.

That spending bill became law just days before NASA announced another delay in the James Webb Space Telescope, one that could cause the mission to exceed a cost cap of $8 billion established as part of a re-plan of the mission several years ago (see “A tangled Webb of delays”, The Space Review, April 2, 2018). Some wondered if that meant if Congress would reconsider its support for the mission in 2019.

Last week, the House offered mixed signals. The House Appropriations Committee passed a commerce, justice and science spending bill that provides NASA with more than $21.5 billion. Included in that total is $150 million for WFIRST: more than the zero dollars the administration asked for, but only about half of what NASA said last year was neeed in 2019 in order to keep the mission on schedule.

“The Committee is supportive of efforts focused on the Moon as well as current robotic missions to Europa and Mars; moving forward with a refocused WFIRST; and building a hypersonic research aircraft,” the report accompanying the bill states.

“I think WFIRST is going to continue to go forward,” Bridenstine said. “If I had a crystal ball, I’d say there’s a 90 percent chance of that.”

It suggests, though, that Congress is interested in revised, and more accurate, long-term budgets for missions like WFIRST. “The Committee directs NASA to submit realistic outyear budgets that show the level of investment required in future years to accomplish the variety of NASA missions and refrain from submitting budgets that are not executable in a timely fashion, as they serve only to hinder effective long-term planning which in turn results in higher overall program costs.”

In the section on WFIRST, it again raises concerns about cost growth, even though NASA has completed changes to the mission that brought its cost back to within $3.2 billion, its original cost cap. “To reduce mission costs and ensure that overlap with James Webb Space Telescope is maximized, NASA should implement the most efficient development program for the telescope and its instruments,” it states, asking NASA to also “leverage more extensively the experience acquired on Hubble, Spitzer, and Wise.”

The full House has yet to take up the spending bill, and the Senate has yet to start on its version (a Senate appropriations subcommittee will hold a hearing on the NASA budget request this Wednesday.) Given recent experience, it won’t be until well after the new fiscal year begins October 1 before Congress completes its spending bill.

But new NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine is confident that WFIRST will be funded by Congress, rejecting his administration’s proposal. “The bottom line is that House appropriators are looking at funding it, and I would imagine that the Senate would probably follow,” he said at an agency town hall meeting last Thursday, even as House appropriators were marking up their bill. “I think WFIRST is going to continue to go forward. If I had a crystal ball, I’d say there’s a 90 percent chance of that.”

WFIRST, Bridenstine cautioned, would have to do a better job on reducing costs. “When we think about WFIRST, we need to think about how we got where we are with the James Webb and make sure we don’t repeat that,” he said. “I’ve got to be committed to preventing that from happening.”

“The only way we will meet the cost cap is if we stay on schedule,” said Kruk.

For now, work on WFIRST continues using its 2018 funding. The mission is scheduled to go through a review known as Key Decision Point B as soon as this week, clearing it to enter its next phase of development—all the while unsure of whether the mission will continue in 2019, and at one level.

Paul Hertz, director of NASA’s astrophysics division, told the National Academies’ Space Studies Board at their meeting early this month that he’s asked the mission to press ahead. “The direction I have given the project is that we have received our FY ’18 appropriation, and that their direction is to spend it working as hard and as fast as they can to stay on the path that leads to staying within the cost cap,” he said.

“We have to be ready to proceed should Congress decide to continue funding the mission,” Jeff Kruk, WFIRST project scientist, said at the same meeting. “The only way we will meet the cost cap is if we stay on schedule.”

However, even with the confidence of the NASA administrator that WFIRST will be funded, the House funding level falls short of what’s needed to maintain the mission’s original pace. “We will have to see what we get for FY19 in an appropriation,” Hertz said. “If it doesn’t match what’s required to meet the $3.2 billion, then we’ll have to make an adjustment, either descoping the mission or changing the cost cap.”

WFIRST may have had the near-death experience expected for a “real” NASA mission, but it’s not out of trouble just yet.

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