Tough times ahead for NASA astronomy missions?

In his speech at the American Astronomical Society’s meeting in Washington last week, NASA administrator Charles Bolden noted that the agency is at a recent high in terms of the number of operating astronomy missions: 15 as of the beginning of 2010, compared to 5 in 1990. (That number includes not just NASA spacecraft but also ESA and JAXA spacecraft that NASA is a partner on, such as ESA’s recently launched Herschel and Planck observatories.) He also made clear that science programs would not be raided to pay for human spaceflight. However, later in his talk he dropped a hint that these good times may be difficult to sustain in the years ahead. “One of our biggest challenges is balancing resources between older facilities and enabling new missions and technologies,” he said.

At a NASA town hall meeting at the AAS conference the next day, Jon Morse, head of the astrophysics division within NASA’s Science Mission Directorate, confirmed that the agency will be facing some tough decisions in the near future about some of its ongoing missions. “We can’t afford to keep doing everything the same way we have been in the past and continue to develop our new missions and new technologies,” he said. “So we’ll be looking for ways to try and keep as many facilities going as possible, but there might be some changes in the ways they’re supported” without specifying what those changes might be.

What that means is that the number of active NASA astronomy missions is likely at its peak and will drop, perhaps precipitously, over the next several years. A chart of the number of active missions projected over the next decade, based on planned new missions and the projected lifetime of existing missions, provided a stark visual: it showed the number of active missions falling to three or four by the middle of the decade, as many current missions are retired and only a handful (including one giant mission, the James Webb Space Telescope) replace them. Morse said the actual number may be higher as they find ways to extend the life of current missions and squeeze them into the budget, but it won’t be anywhere near the current peak. “I would imagine that, especially if we have more international collaborations, that we would probably be up in this range” of six to eight active missions by mid-decade, he said. “So it won’t be quite this bad, but it won’t stay in double figures, I think, for all that long.”

Later this year NASA will hold a “senior review” of a number of ongoing missions to evaluate whether NASA should include funding to continue their operations into FY2012. “It’s been a principle of the astrophysics division for many, many years to absolutely try to make sure that if a satellite is returning scientifically productive data, that we continue to do so,” he said. That might not be sustainable in future budgets, he warned. “This is going to be a difficult senior review,” he said. “You should prepare for those reasons—budget reasons and efficiency reasons—to maybe see some changes in the way we’re supporting these missions.”

3 comments to Tough times ahead for NASA astronomy missions?

  • NASA Fan

    NASA Missions are over designed. And once having spent upwards of $800M for a mission, it is very difficult to end them when yearly mission operations costs are in the few millions (excluding the Great Observatories) and they are still returning useful data.

  • Doug Lassiter

    No surprise here. While JWST is eating the lunch of the astronomers, this upcoming dearth of missions is largely a result of the cuts that Griffin made to SMD, in propping up his Constellation program. Those outyear cuts kept new science missions from ever being being started, such that the pipeline is drying out. That fewer missions are coming out of the pipe is because several years ago, fewer missions were put in.

    One wonders how things might be different if SOMD did regular senior reviews of their current missions, assessing whether we’re really getting value out of them.

  • Dave Cadman

    this may be stupid, so don’t jump over it; but what about getting some of the bigger universities that are active in astronomy/astrophysics, to take over operation and use of these obsolete and near obsolete space telescopes, to train the next generation; while the observations may not be at the cutting edge, there is still value in doing them if it can bring new blood up to speed; and there is still the chance something of use could be found; amateur astronomers on the ground are still making contributions to astronomy ; ie the guy that spoted the strike on Jupiter in 2009

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