WFIRST Continues to Make Progress Despite Cancellation Attempts

Wide-Field Infrared Survey Telescope (Credit: NASA)

by Douglas Messier
Managing Editor

NASA’s Wide-Field Infrared Survey Telescope (WFIRST) continues to making steady progress toward an October 2026 launch despite the Trump Administration’s repeated attempts to cancel it, according to a new assessment by the Government Accountability Office (GAO).

“The WFIRST project passed its preliminary design review (PDR) with 20 of its 23 technologies matured to a technology readiness level 6. Maturing technologies to this level by preliminary design review is a best practice and helps minimize development risks,” the GAO review said.

Program officials have rejected launching WFIRST on the Space Launch System (SLS) due to schedule constraints and the booster’s predicted performance exceeding the telescope’s acoustic limits.

“There are three remaining launch vehicle options—Falcon Heavy, New Glenn, and Vulcan—that could be available for WFIRST’s scheduled 2026 launch, but these vehicles are in varying stages of development or certification,” the GAO report stated.

Congress has repeatedly rejected the Trump Administration’s annual attempts to eliminate the $3.9 billion project in order to devote resources to other scientific priorities.

“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,” the administration said in its fiscal year 2019 budget proposal.

GAO’s assessment of WFIRST follows.

NASA: Assessments of Major Projects
Report to Congressional Committees

Government Accountability Office
April 2020

Wide-Field Infrared Survey Telescope

The Wide-Field Infrared Survey Telescope (WFIRST) is an observatory designed to perform wide-field imaging and survey of the near-infrared sky to answer questions about the structure and evolution of the universe, and expand our knowledge of planets beyond our solar system.

The project will use a telescope that was originally built and qualified by another federal agency. The project plans to launch WFIRST in the mid–2020s to an orbit about 1 million miles from the Earth. The project is also planning a guest observer program, in which the project may provide observation time to academic and other institutions.

Project Summary

In October 2019, the WFIRST project passed its preliminary design review and is working toward its confirmation review, which was rescheduled for February 2020.

WFIRST has continued to refine its design and make progress, but had to remove the planned spectrograph in the Coronagraph Instrument and make other changes in order to reduce cost and improve the coronagraph’s mass and power margins.

WFIRST added a prism to the Wide Field Instrument element wheel to make up for some of the science capabilities that had been planned for the eliminated Integral Field Channel. The Wide Field Instrument changes will not reduce the ability of WFIRST to meet science requirements.

In fiscal year 2019, WFIRST received $59 million less funding than it planned and had to use project reserves to cover the difference. The explanatory statement accompanying the fiscal year 2020 Consolidated Appropriations Act stated that the Act provided $510.7 million for WFIRST, while NASA did not request any funding for it. Further, the President’s 2021 Budget Request proposed canceling the WFIRST project.

Cost and Schedule Status

While the President’s fiscal year 2021 budget again proposed canceling WFIRST, as of January 2020, the project was working toward its rescheduled confirmation review, the point at which the project will formally establish its cost and schedule baselines.

In fiscal year 2019, WFIRST received $59 million less than the amount identified in the funding plan that it had been operating under from the beginning of the fiscal year. The project primarily used reserves to cover the difference, and the Science Mission Directorate intends to replenish the difference in a future fiscal year.

Additionally, NASA estimates that the government shutdown had a schedule impact of 5 weeks at a cost of about $25 million, which was also absorbed with project reserves. Further, as in the previous fiscal year, NASA did not request funding for WFIRST in its fiscal year 2020 budget request, but the explanatory statement accompanying the fiscal year 2020 Consolidated Appropriations Act stated that the Act included $510 million for the project.

Design and Technology

The WFIRST project passed its preliminary design review (PDR) with 20 of its 23 technologies matured to a technology readiness level 6. Maturing technologies to this level by preliminary design review is a best practice and helps minimize development risks.

NASA assessed the remaining three technologies at a technology readiness level 5 at PDR. The project requested a waiver for two heritage technologies because changes to their design required further development. The third technology did not need to be matured by PDR because it is a technology demonstration.

The design of the Wide Field Instrument (WFI)—intended to measure light from a billion galaxies and perform a survey of the inner Milky Way—has undergone extensive optimization, according to project officials.

For example, to make up for some of the science capabilities planned for the eliminated Integral Field Channel, it added a prism to the WFI element wheel, which will provide optical filters and be used for supernova observations. Project officials said the addition of the prism will increase costs by $7 million, and will not reduce the ability of WFIRST to meet science requirements.

Also, WFIRST is tracking a schedule risk regarding the WFI flight detectors production yields. To date only 4 of the 18 detectors needed have qualified as a flight unit. The detectors are challenging to produce, and the project continues to assess the WFI schedule to find efficiencies and other mitigation activities.

To address cost growth and mass and power issues with the Coronagraph Instrument (CGI) —a technology demonstration designed to perform high contrast imaging and spectroscopy of nearby exoplanets—the project eliminated the Integral Field Spectrograph (IFS).

Among other changes, the project replaced the IFS with a prism that allowed it to regain adequate budget, mass, and power margins. The CGI still meets its spectrographic requirements with this change.

Launch Vehicle

No current launch vehicles are certified to launch missions with WFIRST’s level of investment and risks and have the capacity necessary to launch WFIRST’s mass. The project has initiated discussions with NASA’s Launch Services Program to start procuring the launch vehicle in 2020.

The project had considered using the Space Launch System (SLS) as a launch vehicle, but it is no longer a viable option due to schedule constraints and analysis showing that SLS’s predicted performance will exceed WFIRST acoustic requirements.

There are three remaining launch vehicle options—Falcon Heavy, New Glenn, and Vulcan—that could be available for WFIRST’s scheduled 2026 launch, but these vehicles are in varying stages of development or certification.

The WFIRST project is trying to minimize the risks to its designs associated with not having identified a launch vehicle. For example, the WFIRST project is creating mechanical loading requirements that envelope potential launch vehicles to the extent possible.

Project Office Comments

In commenting on a draft of this assessment, project officials noted that the project completed its confirmation review on February 28, 2020, and established a lifecycle cost baseline of $3,934 million which includes a $3,591.3 million baseline for WFIRST and a $342.7 million baseline for the CGI.

The project set a launch readiness date of October 2026. Project officials provided other technical comments on this assessment, which were incorporated as appropriate.