Science

Trump budget aims to kick-start lunar exploration, cancels major space telescope

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Artist’s concept of NASA’s proposed deep space station near the moon. Credit: NASA

The White House’s $19.9 billion NASA budget outline released Monday would continue development of NASA’s heavy-lift Space Launch System rocket and Orion crew capsule and begin the deployment of a mini-space station around the moon as soon as 2022, but the proposal would cancel WFIRST, a flagship-class astronomy mission planned for launch in the mid-2020s.

The funding request submitted to Congress on Monday calls for $10.5 billion in fiscal year 2019, which begins Oct. 1, to prepare for human exploration of the moon as a stepping stone toward eventual missions to Mars and deeper into the solar system.

Lawmakers in the House and Senate will draft their own budgets for NASA and other federal agencies to send to the White House for President Trump’s signature, and there will likely be changes to the Trump administration’s proposal and the budget eventually enacted.

Members of Congress from both parties have expressed concern with major parts of the NASA budget request.

The budget proposal refocuses NASA on lunar exploration using the agency’s Space Launch System and Orion spaceship, two multibillion-dollar programs that could make their first unpiloted test flight together in 2020, several years later than originally intended.

NASA officials said there would be significant roles for commercial partners in the lunar exploration plan.

In 2022, a power and propulsion module could be launched aboard a commercial rocket to begin the construction of a space station dubbed the Lunar Orbital Platform – Gateway. Employing solar-electric propulsion with plasma engines, the module was previously slated to launch on the NASA-owned Space Launch System, and agency officials called the proposed space complex the Deep Space Gateway in past briefings.

The outline described by the White House and NASA officials Monday envisions commercially-developed lunar landers to ferry experiments, hardware, and eventually astronauts between the moon’s surface and the station in lunar orbit by the end of the 2020s.

“The budget request this year for FY19 is $19.9 billion,” said Robert Lightfoot, NASA’s acting administrator. “It’s a $400 million increase in terms what we’ve had, that we’re working to right now as an agency. It really reflects the administration’s confidence that America will lead the way back to the moon and take that next giant leap from where we made the first small steps for humanity some 50 years ago.”

In a speech at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama, the space agency’s lead rocket development center, Lightfoot said the budget request “focuses NASA on its core exploration mission.”

“The proposal this year provides a renewed focus to our human spaceflight activities and really tries to expand our commercial and international partnerships,” Lightfoot said.

Acting NASA Administrator Robert Lightfoot speaks to employees Monday at the Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama. Credit: NASA

The budget request calls for nearly $3.7 billion in fiscal year 2019 for the Space Launch System, Orion crew capsule and associated ground systems to launch the vehicles from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida.

Development of the SLS, a towering, high-power rocket made with excess space shuttle-era boosters and main engines, began in 2011 after President Obama’s cancellation of the Constellation program, an initiative under the George W. Bush administration to return humans to the moon.

The Obama administration redirected NASA to contract with commercial companies to ferry astronauts to and from the International Space Station in low Earth orbit, extending a commercialization program started by the Bush administration for cargo resupply services.

Officials repurposed the Orion spacecraft already in development by the Constellation program to fly on the new Space Launch System. The heavy-lift launcher and the crew capsule would have been sent into deep space to rendezvous with an asteroid and test out propulsion and other technologies in the vicinity of the moon before an eventual expedition to Mars.

The Trump administration last year canceled the Asteroid Redirect Mission to grab a chunk of space rock and bring it to an orbit near the moon for astronauts to visit using the Orion capsule.

Under the program unveiled by the White House last year, and explained in further detail in Monday’s budget request, NASA would still use the same SLS/Orion vehicles originally designed for the Constellation moon program and the Obama White House’s asteroid and Mars initiative. But instead of bypassing treks to the lunar surface in favor of Mars, NASA plans to tap commercial providers to develop and build landers that will explore the moon, first robotically, and then with crews.

NASA has spent some $23 billion on the SLS, Orion and ground system projects over approximately the last decade, with $15 billion of that expenditure coming since 2012, according to the agency’s inspector general.

Lightfoot called SLS and Orion the “critical backbone elements” for NASA’s future in human space exploration.

Multiple new commercial U.S. heavy-lift rockets could be flying by the time the Space Launch System debuts in 2020, including SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy, which made its first successful test flight Feb. 6. Blue Origin’s New Glenn rocket and ULA’s planned Vulcan launcher, both with less lift capability than the Falcon Heavy, are expected to fly for the first time as soon as 2020.

In its initial “Block 1” configuration, the expendable Space Launch System will be able to hurl more than 70 metric tons — 154,000 pounds — into low Earth orbit and more than 25 metric tons — 55,000 pounds — on a trajectory to the moon.

SpaceX says its Falcon Heavy can loft nearly 64 metric tons — more than 140,000 pounds — into low Earth orbit.

Artist’s concept of the Space Launch System in its “Block 1” configuration. Credit: NASA

After a test flight in 2020 without astronauts, the SLS and Orion are scheduled to fly again around 2023 with a crew, taking humans to the distance of the moon for the first time since 1972.

But significant work remains before achieving either milestone, and NASA officials held out hope until early last year that the first SLS/Orion test flight, named Exploration Mission-1, could launch by the end of 2018.

NASA managers in November said they expected EM-1’s launch to slip until 2020.

An upgraded “Block 1B” version of the SLS with a bigger upper stage will debut on Exploration Mission-2, the first SLS/Orion flight with astronauts, capable of hauling 105 metric tons — 105,000 pounds — to low Earth orbit and 32 metric tons — more than 70,000 pounds — on a trans-lunar injection trajectory.

SpaceX has an even bigger rocket on its horizon called the BFR. The gigantic rocket would be the most powerful ever built, capable of carrying around 150 metric tons — 330,000 pounds — to low Earth orbit — and is designed for reuse. The BFR is not likely to be flying space missions by the time the SLS debuts, but SpaceX founder and chief executive Elon Musk said last year it could be ready to send cargo to the moon or Mars by 2022, followed by people a couple of years later.

He acknowledged such a schedule was “aspirational.”

Lightfoot said the lunar exploration outline revealed Monday came out of a 45-day study ordered by the National Space Council, a committee of senior administration officials chaired by Vice President Mike Pence.

“In short, we are once again on a path to return to the moon, with an eye toward Mars,” Lightfoot said.

“Around the moon, in orbit, we’re going to place and begin the first steps of our in-space infrastructure,” Lightfoot said. “In that development, we’re going to launch the power and propulsion element for the Lunar Orbital Platform – Gateway that we’re going to put up. That’s planned to launch in 2022, and that’ll be the first piece that we’re going to have around the moon.

“Also, at the moon, we’re going to have a series of more capable landers,” Lightfoot said. “We’re going to start with small ones that will basically be our scouts, doing the resource prospecting, as I call it, to get ready to go and learn what we can from a scientific perspective, but also how it applies to humans, so you’ll see a series of landers going forward in this budget. That allows us to really start getting our feet wet with what it’s like to be on the moon.”

Artist’s illustration of the Blue Moon lunar lander concept proposed by Blue Origin, the space company founded by Amazon.com’s Jeff Bezos. Credit: Blue Origin

Andrew Hunter, NASA’s acting chief financial officer, said the fiscal year 2019 budget proposal includes $504 million fo the Lunar Orbital Platform – Gateway project. It’s the first time a White House funding request has included money for the proposed deep space station.

Hunter told reporters about $328 million of the funding for the station in lunar orbit would go toward the power and propulsion element. NASA plans to launch a habitation module, an airlock to support spacewalks, and a logistics carrier to the lunar gateway later in the 2020s.

The power and propulsion module could launch as soon as 2022, a year before Exploration Mission-2, the first SLS/Orion flight with a crew on-board. NASA will seek a commercial launch of the module instead of sending it to the moon piggyback with the Orion crew capsule on EM-2, Hunter said.

“The power and propulsion element is not on EM-2 because that’s going to be in 2023,” Hunter said. “We actually want an earlier milestone on the power and propulsion element, and there’s a very good chance it will launch on a commercial launch vehicle, although we’ll probably look at SLS possibilities as well. It’s a timing issue. We want to actually get it launcher earlier.”

NASA announced Nov. 1 that five companies won four-month study contracts to evaluate concepts for the power and propulsion element. The companies were Boeing, Lockheed Martin, Orbital ATK, Sierra Nevada Corp. and Space Systems/Loral.

The next step in the module’s procurement could come later this year, Hunter said.

The power and propulsion section is expected to have a mass of about 8 to 9 tons — around 7.5 metric tons — with a 50-kilowatt solar-electric propulsion drive. Some of the ion engine work completed for the Asteroid Redirect Mission will be applied to the gateway’s propulsion system.

NASA could also issue contracts for the first small commercial lunar lander missions in the coming months, according to Hunter.

The landing craft will first be small in scale to test out descent technology. Subsequent landers will be larger and carry scientific payloads, rovers and other instrumentation to examine the resources available to crews on the lunar surface.

Finally, the commercial lander program could lead to a human-rated landing craft.

NASA’s science directorate will initially oversee the commercial moon lander program.

Without a major boost in NASA’s budget, the lunar program’s affordability assumes the space agency ends its direct funding of the International Space Station in 2025.

Read our earlier story for details on the space station transition plan.

“While we head to the moon and ultimately to Mars, we need to be able to look back into low Earth orbit and see a vibrant economy, an economy that we’ve created and we’ve spurred with things like International Space Station, Lightfoot said.

“As such, this budget proposes to stimulate commercial industry opportunities in low Earth orbit, providing an off-ramp for government-led operations at the International Space Station. What we’ll do is we’ll ramp up efforts to transition low Earth orbit activities to the commercial sector and to end direct federal government suport of the ISS in 2025, hopefully to begin relying on commercial partners for our low Earth orbit research and technology demonstration requirements.”

File photo of the International Space Station from the final space shuttle mission in 2011. Credit: NASA

NASA is using the space station to prove out new life support systems and habitat designs, and conduct research into how the human body responds to long-duration spaceflight. NASA officials have said in the past that they did not want to abandon the space station and entirely transition to deep space exploration until key demonstrations and preparatory experiments were completed in low Earth orbit.

The U.S. government operates the International Space Station with Russia, Japan, Canada and the European Space Agency. It is unclear how the international partners might respond to a U.S. proposal to privatize the orbiting lab.

NASA is in charge of arranging for cargo and crew transportation to the space station on behalf of ESA, Japan and Canada. The U.S. segment of the space station also generates the bulk of the station’s electricity, and four gyroscopes keep the complex orientation under control.

The Russian section of the station houses thrusters required to occasionally fire to counteract the effect of tenuous aerodynamic drag that would eventually pull the outpost back into the atmosphere. No propulsion options are available on the U.S. segment.

And there’s the question of whether a would-be commercial operator would have sufficient business outside of NASA to keep a privately-run space station running.

The White House budget request includes $150 million in 2019 to begin preparing for a commercial complex in low Earth orbit, perhaps with components of the International Space Station itself.

Hunter said NASA is considering adding commercial modules to the space station, or allowing companies to build free-flyers that detach from the outpost and return periodically.

The Obama administration agreed to continue U.S. involvement in the space station program through 2024, and engineers believe the outpost’s structural parts could be certified to continue flying through 2028 without major issues.

Asked whether the budget proposal had enough funding set aside to lay the groundwork for a commercial space station, Hunter said: “I wouldn’t pretend that we’re exactly precise on that. We have a lot of work to do, and a lot of conversations, and lot of talking with partners and international partners, of course, on what that might look like.”

One company which has long eyed a commercial space station in Earth orbit, Bigelow Aerospace, issued a buoyant statement Monday.

“The new budget is Earth shattering news in the space world,” said Robert Bigelow, founder of Bigelow Aerospace. “There are multiple pathways that can energize exciting opportunities over the next few years. Bigelow Aerospace applauds the focus on commercial partnerships for low Earth orbit and lunar exploration and stands ready to partner with NASA and others — in new and exciting ways that we will announce in the near future.”

The Trump administration’s fiscal year 2019 spending plan would also fund continued work on commercial space taxis being built by SpaceX and Boeing to carry astronauts to and from the International Space Station, ending U.S. reliance on Russian ships for the job.

NASA’s science division would receive $5.9 billion, including nearly $1.8 billion for Earth science — a 6 percent reduction from 2017 levels — more than $2.2 billion for planetary science, and almost $1.2 billion for astrophysics.

The biggest cut in the budget plan is the elimination of the Wide-Field Infrared Survey Telescope, a flagship astronomy mission set for launch in the mid-2020s to study dark energy and exoplanets.

Artist’s concept of the WFIRST observatory. Credit: NASA/GSFC

WFIRST would be next in NASA’s line of big observatories in space after Hubble and the James Webb Space Telescope. It was the top priority for NASA’s astrophysics program in a National Academy of Sciences decadal survey released in 2010. The agency’s policy is to follow cues from the science community encapsulated in the decadal survey reports.

“We did have to make some hard decisions in science,” Lightfoot said. “This budget proposes canceling our WFIRST mission and taking those resources and redirecting them to other agency priorities.”

NASA officials considered “descoping” WFIRST, an option to remove some of the observatory’s capabilities in order to reduce its complexity and cost, Hunter said.

Some of the money that would have gone to WFIRST will remain available for use on other science programs at NASA. Another portion of WFIRST’s funding will go toward human exploration, Hunter said.

“Given competing priorities at NASA, and budget constraints, developing another large space telescope immediately after completing the $8.8 billion James Webb Space Telescope is not a priority for the administration,” officials wrote in a budget summary postd on the White House website. “The budget proposes to terminate WFIRST and redirect existing funds to other priorities of the science community, including completed astrophysics missions and research.”

The proposed cancellation of WFIRST was “due to a size cost decision, and the notion that a very large flagship was not affordable at this time,” Hunter said.

“US is abandoning its leadership in space astronomy,” tweeted David Spergel, an astrophysicist at Princeton University. “President budget declares ‘developing another large space telescope after JWST is not a priority for the administration’ and zeros WFIRST.”

Agency managers last year were wary that WFIRST could exceed its $3.2 billion cost cap, and Thomas Zurbuchen, head of NASA’s science directorate, in October ordered a team at the Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland — home of the WFIRST project office — to study how the mission could be modified to fit under the budget limit.

Spergel tweeted that WFIRST “has just been modified to fit within recommendations of independent review. Abandoning WFIRST is abandoning US leadership in dark energy and exoplanets.”

“What is driving the acceleration of the universe? What are the properties of exoplanet atmospheres? How did our galaxy and its neighbors form and evolve? What determines the architecture of exoplanets? US should be leading the world in addressing these big questions,” Spergel wrote.

WFIRST would use a telescope gifted to NASA in 2012 by the National Reconnaissance Office, the U.S. government’s spy satellite agency. Scientists planned a mission like WFIRST with a smaller mirror, but the NRO’s telescope would give WFIRST the same sharp vision as Hubble, but with a field-of-view 100 times wider.

Astronomers using WFIRST’s wide field-of-view hope to detect thousands of bright supernovae — a giant explosion at the end of a star’s life — to measure how the rate of the universe’s expansion has changed over time.

Dark energy is a mysterious force accelerating the expansion of the universe.

Scientists expect WFIRST to find up to 20,000 exoplanets orbiting other stars, building on the planet-hunting capabilities of NASA’s Kepler telescope.

NASA has already spent around $300 million on WFIRST during the last few years, officials said last year.

Spergel called on astronomers and the public to try to get Congress to continue supporting WFIRST.

“Congress writes the budget,” he tweeted. “If the astronomy community and those who are interested in astronomy push back, we will be able to reverse the cuts in the astronomy budget. These cuts imperil not only WFIRST but any future major mission. Push back!”

Margaret Turnbull, an astronomer at the SETI Institute who works on WFIRST, said she was disappointed in the budget request, but she was not giving up.

“We’ve all known that the Trump administration just hasn’t been that supportive of science in general, and hasn’t been that supportive of WFIRST,” Turnbull said in an interview with Spaceflight Now.

She said she was speaking for herself, and not for the SETI Institute.

“What’s been happening each year is that the president puts in their budget, and then Congress adjusts it,” Turnbull said. “So we are very hopeful that, once again this year, Congress will add money for WFIRST.”

“The reason that I’m spending my time on this is because I’m really interested in finding planets around nearby stars, and not just finding them, but really exploring them and seeing what they’re like,” she said.

“This mission is the first time that we’re going to be able to do that finally,” Turnbull said. “We’ve been working for decades in trying to develop this capability, and finally it’s here, so WFIRST is our very first step in exploring our neighboring planetary systems.”

The White House’s budget would also cancel five Earth science missions and instruments, the same projects marked for termination in last year’s funding proposal. Congress has not passed a 2018 budget for NASA, so the proposed Earth science cancellations have not been fully implemented.

And like last year’s budget proposal, the NASA Education Office would be shuttered under the Trump administration’s plan.

The White House’s budget would keep the James Webb Space Telescope on track for launch next year. The 2019 spending outline also calls for $348 million for the Mars 2020 rover, $265 million for the robotic Europa Clipper probe to study one of Jupiter’s icy moons, and $90 million for the Double Asteroid Redirection Test, a mission to test how to deflect an object that could be on a collision course with Earth.

Those funding levels would keep all three missions on track for their launches, beginning in 2020 with the Mars rover.

The planetary science budget plan also includes new money to support development of commercial lunar landers, part of NASA’s new focus on the moon.

Many of the White House’s proposals may run into roadblocks on Capitol Hill.

Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Florida, called the Trump administration’s budget request a “nonstarter.”

“If we’re ever going to get to Mars with humans on-board and return them safely, then we need a larger funding increase for NASA,” Nelson said in a statement. “The proposal would also end support for the International Space Station in 2025 and make deep cuts to popular education and science programs. Turning off the lights and walking away from our sole outpost in space at a time when we’re pushing the frontiers of exploration makes no sense.”

Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, said last week that favors keeping the International Space Station operational as long as it is useful.

“There are reports that the administration’s new budget would suggest that federal funding for the ISS would expire in 2025,” Cruz said in a speech Feb. 7 at the FAA’s Commercial Space Transportation Conference in Washington. “I hope that those reports prove as unfounded as Bigfoot.”

“As a fiscal conservative, one of the dumbest things you can do (is) canceling a program after billions of investment when there is serious usable life ahead,” said Cruz, who chairs the Senate subcommittee charged with NASA oversight. “We have invested massively in the ISS. It has produced enormous benefits to the United States and to the world, and we should use that asset as long as it is technologically feasible and cost effective to do so.”

“As long as I’m chairman of the science and space subcommittee, the ISS will continue to have strong and bipartisan support in the United States Congress,” Cruz said.

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