Navigating NASA's Budget Cuts: Hubble and Chandra Space

Navigating NASA’s Budget Cuts: Hubble and Chandra Space Telescopes

NASA’s Space Telescope Budget Concerns

NASA is considering reducing the budget for its two most significant space telescopes as it faces substantial cutbacks in its astrophysics programs. In a presentation before the National Academies’ Committee on Astronomy and Astrophysics on October 13, Mark Clampin, director of NASA’s Astrophysics Division, said they are studying unspecified cuts in the operating budgets for the Chandra X-ray Observatory and the Hubble Space Telescope to secure funding for other priorities.

NASA’s Budget Concerns for FY24

He noted that the possible cuts are driven by the expectation that their division will not receive full funding of approximately $1.56 billion for Fiscal Year (FY) 2024 due to legislation passed in June that caps non-defense discretionary spending for 2024 at 2023 levels, with only a 1% increase for 2025.

“We are proceeding with the expectation that the FY24 budget will stay consistent with the FY23 level,” he said. “That means we have decided to reduce the budget for expansionary operations, and that includes Chandra and Hubble.”

Clampin declined to specify how much the budgets for these two observatories might be reduced or what specific impacts might occur due to the cuts. He suggested that approved cuts are still being studied, noting that they had succeeded in making a “positive adjustment” for Chandra just last week.

Costly Telescopes: Budget Pressure

Chandra and the James Webb Space Telescope, following their work on NASA’s astrophysics, are the agency’s two most expensive missions. NASA requested $93.3 million for Hubble and $68.7 million for Chandra in its Fiscal Year 2024 budget proposal, in line with last year’s budget. Together, they account for over 10% of NASA’s budget request for astrophysics for Fiscal Year 2024.

They are among NASA’s oldest missions, with Hubble launching in 1990 and Chandra in 1999, and Clampin suggested that this is one reason for the budget cuts. “Chandra has several challenges ahead. It is becoming difficult to operate, with deteriorating spacecraft outside of the field of view, heating the spacecraft, and making work increasingly difficult.”

“While Hubble doesn’t face those issues,” he continued, “it has been in operation for an extended period and constitutes a substantial portion of the astrophysics budget.”

Future of Chandra and Hubble Telescopes

Clampin said they are planning two “senior reviews” for Chandra and Hubble, potentially in May 2024 following the completion of the Fiscal Year 2025 budget proposal. NASA uses senior reviews to determine whether and how to extend the missions of its space telescopes that have completed their primary missions.

Chandra Telescope
Chandra Telescope

In the 2022 senior review, Chandra and Hubble were effectively exempted from further review, seeking to focus the reviews on individual missions’ cost effectiveness and other improvements rather than asking whether missions should be extended.

Telescopes’ Promising Future

The final report of the 2022 senior review said, “Hubble and Chandra are well positioned to make extensive, high-impact contributions to astrophysics. Both missions are performing at an exceptionally high level, and while they are showing the effects of aging, it is possible that they will continue to make global standard-setting scientific contributions over the next half-decade, working alongside JWST as it begins its critical mission.”

Future-Proofing Astrophysics Missions

Clampin noted that any savings from Chandra and Hubble would go to other astrophysics priorities. He said, “What we’re trying to do is preserve the missions of the future and expandable missions and international partnerships.”

This includes missions like the Nancy Grace Roman Space Telescope, a small explorer-class astrophysics mission, and other missions on NASA’s agenda led by other countries, such as ESA’s Laser Interferometer Space Antenna (LISA) and the Israeli Ultraviolet Astronomical Satellite.

They added that they also want to protect early work on the HabEx (Habitable Exoplanets) Observatory, NASA’s next flagship astrophysics mission set to launch in the 2040s. He said, “Advancing the HabEx Observatory is absolutely fundamental.” It includes funding for critical technologies for the large space telescope and teams to study the science and technology of the mission.

NASA’s Budget Review and Caution

They also noted that NASA is reviewing “minor cuts” in other operating missions, which it did not identify, as well as reductions in technology development spending.

They said that all of these projects were aimed at protecting against potential cuts in astrophysics. The Senate version of the Commerce, Justice, and Science (CJS) appropriations bill for Fiscal Year 2024 will give NASA $1.544 billion, which is less than the request but still more than the $1.51 billion that will be received in 2023. This covers the CJS appropriations bill.

They cautioned the committee, “It is entirely possible that when we get an allocation, looking at what you see in the news every day, we could be below the 2023 level.” “There is nothing pleasant about that.”

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