NASA Defends Space Telescope Cancellation at Budget Hearing

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Publication date: 
14 March 2018

NASA Acting Administrator Robert Lightfoot testified before the House Science Committee that the agency is looking into alternate ways to obtain the astrophysics data the Wide Field Infrared Survey Telescope mission would have provided. However, he has since emphasized that the mission cancellation is only a proposal.

At a March 7 hearing of the House Science Committee’s Space Subcommittee, members questioned NASA Acting Administrator Robert Lightfoot on the agency’s fiscal year 2019 budget request, including the proposed cancellation of the flagship Wide Field Infrared Survey Telescope (WFIRST).

Most of the hearing focused on NASA’s human exploration mission and on how NASA should strike a balance between ensuring mission continuity across administrations and being open to new directions, such as the series of lunar missions proposed in the request. However, discussion ventured several times to NASA’s science missions.

Lightfoot, who has served as acting administrator since President Trump took office in January 2017, recently announced he will retire at the end of April. His 14-month term as acting administrator has already been the longest period NASA has gone without a Senate-confirmed leader in its 60-year history. Although Trump has nominated Rep. Jim Bridenstine (R-OK) to helm the agency, the nomination has stalled in the Senate due to an apparent lack of majority support, including opposition from at least one Republican senator.


Robert Lightfoot

NASA Acting Administrator Robert Lightfoot addresses the 56th Robert H. Goddard Memorial Symposium on March 13.

(Image credit – NASA TV)

Subcommittee chair praises ‘robust’ science program

In his opening statement, Subcommittee Chairman Brian Babin (R-TX) expressed enthusiasm for NASA’s focus on exploration in the request. He said that while “Mars has been and will remain the first interplanetary destination for humanity,” he would welcome interim exploration missions such the Lunar Orbital Platform-Gateway, a space station that would be built within the Moon’s orbit, an area known as cislunar space.

Babin also seemed satisfied with the proposed budget for NASA’s science portfolio, saying it

…continues to restore balance and support critical work across the entire science directorate. The budget supports a robust science program. This includes a range of small, medium, and large missions, such as the [Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite] mission next month, the Mars InSight Lander in May, the Parker Solar Probe over the summer, and the James Webb Space Telescope in 2019, as well as the flagship Europa Clipper and Mars 2020 Rover missions.

Democratic members ask if NASA science is being neglected

Striking a different tone, Subcommittee Ranking Member Ami Bera (D-CA) questioned whether NASA was prioritizing exploration at the expense of science and other mission areas. He cautioned,

As we dive into the budget, there are some areas of concern of the overweight focus just on exploration. None of us is going to argue that exploration’s not important, but we also want to make sure we don’t lose sight of the space science side, the space technology, the aeronautics, and education.

Rep. Ed Perlmutter (D-CO) seconded Bera’s concerns, saying the emphasis on exploration “seems to be at the expense of a lot of the other missions of NASA.

Perlmutter questioned the administration’s proposal to move the $690 million Space Technology Mission Directorate into the $9.3 billion Human Exploration and Operations Mission Directorate. He referenced a letter sent to the committee by Bobby Braun, dean of the University of Colorado Boulder, which argues that such a move would be a mistake.

Lightfoot defended the budget request as “very balanced” across science, aeronautics, technology, and exploration. However, he also explained that,

What we’re really trying to do here is focus on a long-term plan with our eye on Mars. And I think what you see in this budget is a series of missions to the Moon and the lunar vicinity that are going to enable us to get to Mars ultimately.

When Bera pressed further on his concerns that NASA is “robbing Peter to pay Paul” to support exploration, Lightfoot reassured him that “we’re still meeting the majority of our science priorities going forward.

Lightfoot added he is pushing the agency toward better integration of the human exploration and science missions, which he said will require an increased focus on cislunar scientific research.

Members question proposal to axe flagship space telescope

Bera observed that dropping WFIRST from NASA’s budget is a sharp departure from the National Academy of Sciences’ 2010 astronomy and astrophysics decadal survey, which identified it as the top-priority large mission for NASA’s Astrophysics Division.

Saying the decadal survey process has “served us well,” he adding,

Not looking at this scientific-based prioritization and moving away from that can set a dangerous precedent. We don’t want to get into a situation where every four years priorities are changing. That makes it very difficult for the NASA administrator and NASA to focus on some of these longer-term projects.

When Bera asked Lightfoot about the value of the decadal survey, Lightfoot affirmed that he views it as “a stalwart for what we do from an agency standpoint,” but he qualified that, “We don’t always do exactly what the decadal says. It’s just a good advising for us.

When Rep. Jim Banks (R-IN) asked about the consequences of cancelling WFIRST, and expressed concern over the loss of aerospace jobs in his district. Lightfoot responded that the biggest consequence would be the gap in astrophysics data that NASA and the scientific community would have obtained from the mission. To address this problem, he suggested that the funds which would have gone to WFIRST could “perhaps get the data in a different way.

Bera asked Lightfoot to work with him “to try to figure out how we continue to fill that hole, or continue to move forward with the WFIRST project,” a request to which Lightfoot agreed. In the absence of a WFIRST mission, Lightfoot said that the Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite and James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) will “fill astrophysics needs for quite a bit of time.”

Since the hearing, Lightfoot has provided more insight into the thinking that went into the proposed cancellation. In a talk on March 13 at a space policy symposium, Lightfoot called the cancellation “a budget decision,” clarifying that it was “not a performance issue at all.” Lightfoot explained,

We know the [cost] range right now is $3.2 to $3.9 billion. When we looked at that range and discussed it with the administration, we decided we didn’t want to bite that big bullet right now.

He emphasized more than once that the cancellation is only a proposal, and said that for now the WFIRST team will still forge ahead with planning for the mission.

James Webb Space Telescope facing challenges, delays

During his questions, Rep. Frank Lucas (R-OK) asked whether NASA has the necessary resources to complete and launch the JWST, another major astrophysics telescope anticipated to launch within the next two years. Lightfoot reassured the panel that NASA does. He said JWST is undergoing “a pretty significant review from a schedule standpoint, about when we’ll launch it.” He said NASA is having trouble with some of the technical components of the spacecraft but that the telescope itself is in good shape.

Last fall, NASA delayed JWST’s launch from the fall 2018 to spring 2019. A Government Accountability Office report released on Feb. 28 warned that further delays are now likely and may increase the lifecycle cost of the space telescope above the $8 billion cap set by Congress.

Lightfoot said he plans to receive a briefing on the status of the JWST mission at the end of the month and that NASA will update the committee and the public at that time.

Physicist congressman warns against use of high-enriched uranium

During his questions, Rep. Bill Foster (D-IL) encouraged NASA to move away from its plans to use high-enriched uranium (HEU) for electric power and propulsion of future spacecraft, and to use low-enriched uranium (LEU) instead.

Foster stressed that “there is a huge difference in the danger” between the two kinds of uranium, explaining,

If you have high-enriched uranium and a terrorist steals it, they can, without much sophistication, make a nuclear weapon. On the other hand, if they steal low-enriched uranium, they have to go and build a centrifuge hall, and so on. So it’s almost useless to them.

Questioning the necessity of NASA’s use of HEU for propulsion and surface power, Foster urged Lightfoot to “look hard at seeing if you can lead the world in standardizing on low-enriched uranium.” He argued that NASA should take into account all the costs, including those related to security, of producing and using HEU. Foster also cited a letter that 35 Nobel laureates signed urging the U.S. to take further steps to reduce its reliance on HEU.

In response, Lightfoot said NASA has been working on LEU technologies for those reasons. He offered to provide Foster with a report on the progress NASA has made so far in advancing the technology.

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