Senior review could spell the end for a Great Observatory

Late Thursday, NASA released the final report of the latest “senior review” of ongoing astrophysics missions, a study done every two years to ensure that missions that have completed their primary missions are still performing science that justifies the expense of their continued operations. This review had been watched closely because of NASA’s constrained budget and the large number of missions under consideration. (A separate review of NASA’s planetary science missions is ongoing.)

The final report was mostly good news for NASA’s astrophysics missions. Even in the more pessimistic of the two budget scenarios considered in the senior review, the committee recommended most missions continue, although in some cases with cuts in certain activities. That included the “K2” mission for Kepler, which had to end its primary mission last year when the second of four reaction wheels failed.

The exception, though, is the Spitzer Space Telescope, one of NASA’s four original Great Observatories. Spitzer “would be the most expensive of the missions reviewed, despite the fact that Spitzer’s observational capabilities are significantly reduced since its prime mission,” the report stated. In the more optimistic funding scenario, it recommended that unless Spitzer can operate at a reduced funding level, it should be terminated. In the more pessimistic scenario, the senior review recommended it be terminated in fiscal year 2015.

In NASA’s response to the senior review report, it went along with that recommendation. “The baseline plan to complete Spitzer operations after the end of FY 2014 and complete the closeout of the mission by the end of FY 2015, consistent with the President’s FY 2015 budget request, is confirmed,” it stated. It adds, though, that the project can submit a revised budget request to operate with reduced funding that would be considered in planning for the FY16 budget request later this year. “If the Administration proposes additional funding for Spitzer in the FY16 Budget, the project will be able to seamlessly continue operations in FY15, while awaiting final appropriations from the Congress for FY16.”

10 comments to Senior review could spell the end for a Great Observatory

  • Hiram

    Spitzer was a Great Observatory when it had cryogens. Those cryogens had a very finite lifetime. It doesn’t have them anymore, and it’s capabilities are dramatically reduced. (No, not “significantly reduced”. Let’s not pull any punches. “Dramatically reduced”.) It is unusable in most of its original instruments. That instrument complement will never change. Spitzer survived the last Senior Review because it had a creative plan to reinvent itself as an exoplanet observatory. It did an excellent job on that for a few years, but is increasingly running on fumes. It’s way past its primary mission. Let’s toast its many successes, but not shed too many tears over it’s demise. The end of the Spitzer “Great Observatory” was spelled out many years ago. It’s now just a fossil of that Great Observatory.

  • James

    Too bad NASA can’t service the cryo’s. I recall in the 90’s a Shuttle based payloas/mission that demonstrated on orbit fluid helium transfer….a demo of future servicing capabilities.

    Whatever becomes of these technologies?

    • Hiram

      Spitzer is in a receding heliocentric orbit. It isn’t close by. It’s also old infrared technology and a pretty small telescope. Modern era cryogenic telescopes would do it without expendable cryogens.

  • numbers_guy101

    These reviews always shy away from a basic long view question. If you could measure the NASA scientific communities growth in ambition, year over year, would that be 1.5%? 1.5% is how much NASAs budget went up on average in the last decade. If the answer is that ambition goes up faster than 1.5% a year, then fewer missions will result, dropping the number of systems over time. If the ambition is not to repeat past systems in LEO in favor of more capable probes further out, the total number of these will decline. If these reviews addressed efficiency, doing much more over time for the same resources, across the solar system, from LEO on out, the agency would be starting to control it’s destiny. Otherwise the path forward is pre-ordained; fewer more expensive missions farther out until even these become untenable, lacking any notions of significant and necessary increases in development and operational efficiencies.

    • Hiram

      “These reviews always shy away from a basic long view question.”

      Perplexing comment.

      First of all, space science never will “repeat past systems”. Period. As technologies increase, more ambitious science can, in principle, be carried out for the same investment. There is no scientific sense in just building a new science facility that does what’s already been done. When HST dies, there will be no interest in building a new one that does the same thing. The cutting edge is where you always want to be.

      Secondly, technology progress always results in increased efficiency for the same general capability. Detector arrays are far larger than they used to be, and the detective efficiency for each detector is far greater. That’s just one example, for imaging capabilities.

      That being said, there is serious consideration being given in the science community about the relative value (as in, science/dollar) of large missions compared with small missions. Large missions can do things that small missions can’t. But a huge benefit of the smal missions is scientist training and responsivity to science progress, as more people have more frequent opportunities to exercise cleverness.

      As to regulating ambition, when you’ve got a fairly fixed pot of money, you strategize how to get the most science out of it. In fact, doing that strategizing about the long view question is precisely what the Decadal reports are for, and those efforts think hard about large versus small.

      • James

        Very well said. It has been my experience dealing with Scientist that their ambition, the ideas they have for science missions , always far exceeds whatever the budget is. There are so many great scientific ideas that will not get the light of day, as a mission because there simply isn’t enough money to go around.

      • numbers_guy101

        Technology progress is not the same, nor does it always translate, into organizational, supply or cost efficiency. Especially if that is not a goal being managed at the portfolio level. To use the Hubble example, if a more capable, more technologically advanced telescope were to be planned, would the first budget number off the board be the previous Hubbles’s budget, adjusted only for budget increases in the intervening period? Or would the capability enhancement be defined first, with cost as an output?

        The mega-fauna effect is already seen in the James Webb. The budget for Webb far exceeds any previous analog like Hubble, if merely adjusted for actual budget increases since that time. One can easily say there will be more capability, but that is my point. The additional capability exceeded budget growth of the last similar thing. This mega-flora effect by definition means less number of systems both in development or in operation over time with fewer number of capabilities. The efficiency has to be at the industry, supply, acquisition, organizational AND technology levels AHEAD of merely little budget increases. You must run in place to stay where you are. You must run even faster to get ahead of a curve, or decline is inevitable.

        • Hiram

          My point was that the science community knows what their budget allocation is likely to be. They look for an instrument concept bounded by that limit that gives them the most science. Then they run with that ball. Of course, those cost estimates are often not valid, though many have been. That’s exactly what the Explorer and Discovery concepts are about about. They’re fixed budget wedges. JWST is a grotesque flagship mission example of invalid costing, where, with really poor cost estimation strategies, the science community was told early on that a JWST could be built on the cheap. The science community was naive enough to believe it, couldn’t stop running with the ball when it was evident how much it would cost, and it is paying for its error with lots of smaller missions that aren’t going to happen.

          I think, but I’m not sure, that you must be talking about being exasperated by mis-estimated and lowballed budgets. Yep. It happens. It happens a lot in space and not just in science. “Efficiency” is a poor metric. You have a bogey budget, and you see what science you think you can buy with it with it. If you miss your budget, it isn’t because you were “inefficient”, but because you just did poor cost estimation. It’s a lame excuse to say that a mission misses budget because it was implemented in an “inefficient” way. The reason budget are missed is usually because a problem was more complicated than it was thought to be.

        • James

          “Technology progress is not the same, nor does it always translate, into organizational, supply or cost efficiency.”

          New technologies opens up the possibility of making finer science measurements – furthering answers to scientific questions.

          At best, it may cut the costs of a particular observatory subsystem. Like detector advancement often does.

          However, there is still the ‘rest of the observatory’ that has to be built around it; and typically, to keep the costs down, PI’s will propose derivative’s of systems flown.

          Never have I seen a new technology create efficiency in organizations! Ha! Not gonna happen at NASA – ever. Sometimes, the technology reduces operational costs – Phase E costs, which is a good thing.

          In the end, poor cost estimates, along with the “buy in low screw ‘em with higher cost estimates later” game, plus manifest dysfunction everywhere (Still not addressed by the Casani Report) one turns at NASA, has led to JWST being $6B over initial estimates.

      • numbers_guy101

        A comment that just came out over on NASA Watch under the title “Today’s Exercise in Denial at NASA”.

        Mather: Next telescope after #JWST would probably need to be 2-3x bigger that #JWST. Need to find a way to do it for the same price.
        — Tony Darnell (@DeepAstronomy) June 4, 2014

        I thought it relevant to this prior discussion.

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