At a recent meeting of the National Academies’ Space Studies Board, NASA science leaders joined board members in reflecting on recent setbacks in the development of two flagship telescopes and debated the best path forward for the next astronomy and astrophysics decadal survey. NASA’s lead science official called for delaying the decadal survey and urged the board to move beyond proposing single, large missions.
House Science Committee members and expert witnesses called for more robust space weather research, observations, and forecasting at a hearing last week. They also pushed for better defined roles in government, academia, and industry.
By the narrowest margin in the history of the space agency, the Senate confirmed Rep. Jim Bridenstine (R-OK) as NASA administrator yesterday on a party-line vote of 50 to 49. The other chamber of Congress also made NASA news this week, with the House Science Committee advancing a NASA reauthorization bill after a contentious debate over funding recommendations for its Earth Science Division.
Final spending legislation for fiscal year 2018 increases NASA’s Science Mission Directorate budget by 8 percent to $6.2 billion. The new funding will mainly benefit the Planetary Science Division, which is directed to ramp up two missions to Jupiter’s moon Europa. The Heliophysics and Astrophysics Divisions are receiving smaller increases, while the Earth Science Division’s budget remains steady.
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.
The Trump administration’s fiscal year 2019 budget request for NASA refocuses the agency on its exploration mission. Science funding would increase under the request, but NASA would cancel its flagship Wide Field Infrared Survey Telescope and pare back its Earth Science portfolio. The Planetary Science Division would see a 22 percent budget increase and is slated to oversee a new Lunar Discovery and Exploration research program.
Rep. Jim Bridenstine (R-OK), the nominee for NASA administrator, cast himself as a consensus builder during a contentious confirmation hearing on Nov. 1. While receiving unanimous support from Republicans, Democrats portrayed him as insufficiently qualified and too politically divisive to lead the agency.
Mike Griffin has been selected to become the first under secretary of defense for research and engineering since 1986. Griffin was NASA administrator from 2005 to 2009 and has extensive experience in government and private industry. If confirmed, he will be tasked with instilling the Defense Department’s science and technology activities with a more innovative, risk-tolerant culture.
Scientists are hailing the observation of gravitational waves and electromagnetic radiation from a collision of two neutron stars as marking a new era of multi-messenger astrophysics. It is a field of research enabled by expansive international collaboration between facilities of all sizes, and its first success is likely to lead to the further development of its infrastructure.
At a hearing last week, members of the House Science Committee heard testimony about the status of domestic plutonium-238 supplies, an essential fuel for many robotic science missions. A Government Accountability Office report released at the same time recommends that the Department of Energy improve its long-term planning for producing Pu-238 and associated power systems.