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Hertz Paints Bleak Near-Term Outlook for NASA Astrophysics Division if Sequester Continues

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 04-Nov-2013
Updated: 04-Nov-2013 08:45 PM

NASA Astrophysics Division Director Paul Hertz painted a bleak picture of NASA’s FY2014 astrophysics budget today and forecast a future filled with uncertainty.  The James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) may be secure, but the rest of NASA’s astrophysics program could have tough sailing ahead.

Hertz stressed that the country spends quite a bit of money on NASA’s astrophysics portfolio – a total of $1.3 billion “and you can’t plead poverty when there’s $1.3 billion on the table.”  Roughly half of that is for JWST, however, which is managed separately from the rest of NASA’s astrophysics programs.

Hertz manages NASA’s Astrophysics Division (APD), everything except JWST.   APD includes operations of existing space telescopes (Hubble, Spitzer, Chandra, Kepler and Fermi), astrophysics Explorer missions (Astro-H, NICER, and TESS), suborbital (balloon and airborne) missions, and development of future missions.  While he was speaking to the National Research Council’s Committee on Astronomy and Astrophysics (CAA), new findings from Kepler were being announced at the Kepler Science Conference II.

Congress appropriated $659 million for APD in FY2013, Hertz said, but that was reduced by $42 million because of sequestration and rescissions.   By contrast, JWST is an agency priority and was spared any cuts; other parts of NASA’s science budget had to make up the difference, he noted.

On paper, Hertz’s current budget is $642 million (the President’s FY2014 request) of which about $14 million is for institutional costs, leaving $628 million for science “content” – performing scientific research using instruments aboard suborbital and orbital platforms and analyzing the resulting data.  In reality, NASA is now funded under a Continuing Resolution (CR) that lasts until January 15, 2014.  Hertz said that if the agency is kept at that level for all of FY2014, he will have to cut 6.5 percent (about $35 million) from the $628 million, which could rise to 10 percent (about $50 million) if the sequester remains in place.

CAA provides strategic advice on science priorities for astronomy and astrophysics programs at NASA and the National Science Foundation.   Hertz told the committee that he is always looking for good advice on how to manage his budget most effectively, especially in these constrained circumstances.

CAA member Tom Young, a retired industry executive often called upon to lead studies of why government space programs go awry and former director of NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, commented that the overall problem is that “there is too much program” for NASA’s budget.  He believes NASA should anticipate getting total funding in the $16-17 billion range.   

At that level, he argued, a decision needs to be made to eliminate “a thing” from the NASA portfolio or to fund everything at a “malnutrition” level.    Hertz rejoined that if he knew for certain that his APD budget would be reduced by 10 percent for many years, he would make choices with out-year budget savings, but the administration’s guidance is that this is a temporary situation and the sequester will not remain in force.  It is very different, he said, to make decisions based on “a one year cut and a forever cut.”

Young reiterated that “cuts will happen” and the only question is how the cut is distributed.  While acknowledging that Young might be correct, Hertz added “that’s not what I hear.”

Other notable points from presentations by Hertz and JWST Acting Program Director Eric Smith included:

  • NASA will not implement the reorganization of government STEM education programs proposed in the President’s FY2014 budget request.  However, the funding was removed from NASA’s science programs in the FY2014 budget request, so now it must be found somewhere else within NASA’s science program.
  • JWST remains on schedule despite the 16-day government shutdown; though some tests were delayed, the program has 14 months of schedule reserve, so the October 2018 launch date is unaffected.
  • NASA continues to plan for a new large astrophysics mission after JWST using the NRC’s Decadal Survey as guidance.  The NRC recommended a Wide-Field Infrared Space Telescope (WFIRST) and NASA is assessing whether 2.4 meter telescopes given to NASA by the National Reconnaissance Office can be used to implement that mission cost effectively (a concept called AFTA).  However, APD cannot be sure decision-makers will agree to another large mission and therefore has created Science Definition Teams for a couple of medium-sized missions so those concepts are ready instead if needed.
  • If the sequester remains in place, the estimated FY2014 budget for all of NASA would be $16.25 billion, compared to the $17.7 billion request.
  • The APD program was affected by the government shutdown in a number of ways:
    • The 2013-2014 Antarctic Long Duration Balloon campaign was cancelled
    • The Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy (SOFIA) aircraft-based astronomy platform cancelled 9 science flights with U.S. experiments
    • An instrument for the NASA-JAXA Astro-H mission could not be tested, resulting in a 5-week delay in its shipment to Japan for integration into the spacecraft and increased costs
    • Other projects had schedule hits including a one-month delay for the ISS-CREAM experiment
    • There will be delays in sending out research funding

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