12 April 2024

An Interview with Mark Clampin, Director of NASA's Astrophysics Division

Yaswant Devarakonda American Astronomical Society (AAS)

NASA’s Science Mission Directorate (SMD) is vital to our world-renowned space program. The American Astronomical Society monitors the status of projects from the Astrophysics, Heliophysics, and Planetary Science Divisions, as well as the status of implementing the recommendations of the Decadal Surveys. Collectively, these mission areas advance our understanding of our planet, our solar system, and the universe. NASA’s science programs need sufficient support to advance scientific discovery, safeguard our planet, support the highly skilled space workforce, and secure the United States’ position as a global leader in space exploration.

The following is an interview with Mark Clampin, the Astrophysics Division (APD) Director in the SMD at NASA, discussing the status of the Astrophysics Division budget and how the Division is managing current and upcoming missions.

A headshot of Mark Clampin
Mark Clampin, Director of NASA's Astrophysics Division. Credit: NASA

First, let’s talk about how the Astrophysics Division fits into the general budget strategy for NASA and SMD to help set the context of the discussion of the budget. Can you briefly describe how the status of the goals and projects for the Astrophysics Division compares to other areas of NASA and SMD? Are the Astrophysics projects and missions on time and schedule compared to other areas of NASA?

Each of our five science divisions in SMD are guided by their respective Decadal Surveys, NASA’s strategic goals, and the goal of achieving balance across their portfolios. SMD actively tracks the progress and performance of its missions. Since the establishment of the 70% [Job Confidence Level] requirement for major missions in 2009, SMD has confirmed and launched 39 missions. Including Webb, these missions have overrun their Phase C/D commitments by a net 4.5%. Excluding Webb, these missions have underrun their Phase C/D budget commitments by a net 0.5%. Nineteen of these missions completed development under their cost commitment. Excluding Webb, Astrophysics missions are performing in family with other SMD missions. The Roman Space Telescope, which is subject to a congressional cost cap, is currently performing to cost and schedule.

The Administration seems to have changed its plans for NASA compared to last year’s budget request.  NASA’s budget decreased from last year's projection for Fiscal Year 2025 (FY25) to the actual budget request in FY25 by $2.4 billion (SMD’s budget decreased by about $900 million). How do these budget constraints impact planning for other large projects in NASA (e.g. Artemis and MSR)? How might these NASA budget pressures impact the Astrophysics budget?

We acknowledge that we are operating in a challenging budget environment, and we always want to do the most science we possibly can. But APD — and SMD more broadly — are committed to working as one agency. NASA is both a space agency that conducts science, and a science institution that goes to space. In the same way that science is tightly woven into our exploration goals, exploration is deeply involved with our science efforts. SMD and NASA’s exploration directorates will work together with the resources we receive to achieve success in all aspects of NASA’s mission. NASA’s $7.6B request for Science in FY 2025 supports exciting missions and foundational research, and it emphasizes a balanced approach to achieving our vision and mission across science themes, within the overall constraints of the agency’s budget.

What areas of the Astrophysics budget are you most excited about? What areas of the budget are the most challenging?  

Astrophysics has a proposed budget of $1,578,081 in FY25. This will allow us to continue fully funding Webb science and operations to continue its groundbreaking scientific observations of the early universe. We are fully funding the Roman Space Telescope to maintain its progress and deliver the observatory within its agency commitment. This budget also fully funds the science budget for Roman after its launch. We believe that maintaining the funding for the Research and Analysis (R&A) budget is essential to ensure the health of the Astrophysics community, including early-career scientists. R&A also funds scientific disciplines across the electromagnetic spectrum.

In addition to Astrophysics flagships, we are also ensuring a healthy pipeline for new Explorer missions, as well funding those currently in development. The new Probe-class mission will meet the Decadal recommendation for this mission, providing a new capability for either X-ray or far-infrared astrophysics. In addition, we are funding a new Medium Explorer (MIDEX) mission — the recently selected Ultraviolet Explorer (UVEX) mission — and are on track to launch SPHEREx in early 2025. Astrophysics is also continuing to support its international commitments with missions such as LISA, NewAthena, and Ultrasat. LISA has just been confirmed by the European Space Agency and is scheduled for its first Key Decision Point review (Phase A/B) later this year.

Finally, I am excited by the progress Astrophysics has made during the first year after I announced our response to the primary Astro2020 recommendation, the Habitable Worlds Observatory. The Science, Technology Architecture Review Team (START) is making great progress, having engaged some 1,000 community members in its working groups. This President’s Budget Request enables us to start making investments in maturing key technologies for the Habitable Worlds Observatory, an activity that will be coordinated by the new Project Office established at GSFC.

What other areas of the Astronomy budget do you think we should know about?  Are there Research Opportunities in Space and Earth Science (ROSES) calls that are delayed, etc.?

I think it is important to recognize that once we have fully funded development of the Roman Space Telescope, Webb, and the Astrophysics Division’s (APD’s) Research and Analysis programs, there is limited flexibility to address budget challenges. That budgetary flexibility is further challenged if APD is to maintain a pipeline of new mission classes ranging from Astrophysics Probe to Pioneers, continue ongoing international partnerships, and initiate funding of technology maturation for the Habitable Worlds Observatory. Consequently, APD has opted to review the operational costs of Chandra and Hubble, the two oldest missions in the portfolio. In addition, a Mission of Opportunity (MOO) from MIDEX 2021 was not selected, and there will not be a MOO call for the 2025 Small Explorers (SMEX) opportunity. However, both the 2025 SMEX and the 2027 MIDEX Announcements of Opportunity (AOs) will go forward. APD’s approach is to provide the earliest possible notification if AOs are to be delayed or cancelled. At present no ROSES calls have been cancelled or delayed.

How does Astrophysics balance the recommendations of community-led processes like Decadal Surveys and Senior Reviews with each other, and with its own judgment, in deciding on spending priorities?

APD draws upon the recommendations of the Decadal Survey and Senior Reviews as it makes decisions regarding portfolio balance. When significant reductions are required, APD may need to apply its own prioritization to meet the spending guidance. In such cases, APD’s emphasis is to maintain balance within the portfolio. If decisions supersede Senior Review recommendations, we seek community guidance to supplement prioritization as soon as budget embargoes permit.

Groups such as the NASA Office of the Inspector General, GAO, and independent review boards have all noted issues involving workforce management and mission planning. Are there any lessons that you've learned from JWST, Roman, and other large missions in other divisions that you believe will inform future workforce and planning strategy, for example as Roman nears completion and Habitable Worlds Observatory ramps up?

NASA missions push the frontier of aeronautics and space research. Our ambitious missions will always pose challenges to cost and schedule estimation. We remain fully committed to continually improving program and project performance from the technical, cost, schedule, and programmatic perspectives. APD always considers the budgetary impact of deferring missions, since this ultimately leads to increases in the cost cap as well as creating workforce challenges for the principal investigator. Lessons learned from both Webb and other NASA large missions have been documented in the NASA Large Mission Study. These lessons are being applied as we begin the Habitable Worlds Observatory.

How does NASA Astrophysics balance the need to support human capital development (including in wavelength-specific subfields) via PI grants with the demands of supporting current mission operations and future mission development?

One of APD’s primary approaches to supporting human capital development (including in wavelength-specific subfields) is maintaining a robust research and analysis program. APD continues to operate a number of X-ray missions in addition to Chandra, including XMM, IXPE, NuSTAR, NICER, and XRISM. Research support for these missions combined with other R&A programs fund the X-ray community at a level of ~$28M. Programs such as the Pioneers program also provide specific support for mission development training.

On the mini-senior reviews for HST and Chandra:

You are currently implementing a mini-senior review for Hubble Space Telescope (HST) and Chandra. Both missions were included in the Senior Review in 2022. The FY 2024 President’s Budget Request (FY24 PBR) has Chandra continuing operations until at least 2028 (the last year in the planned out-years), with slight increases each year for inflation adjustments. The FY25 PBR severely reduces the budget and appears to signal a close-out period starting in FY26. How does the decision-making process to reduce Chandra to close-out levels, but not officially cancel Chandra, compare to how other missions have been decommissioned?

A review of FY24 PBR versus FY25PBR shows drops in proposed funding for APD ranging from $44M to ~$100M in the out-years. When impacts from inflation are factored into the budget as well, we are facing substantial cuts relative to the FY24 PBR. Difficult decisions are required to deal with negative deltas of this magnitude. The last Senior Review was predicated on assumptions that are no longer valid. Fencing off Hubble and Chandra would likely require cancellation of other operating missions, breaking agreements on international partnerships that address Decadal priorities, and negatively impacting several other missions currently in development. The FY25 budget request is not a decision to decommission Chandra. We are instead looking to the mini-Senior Review process to help APD establish a more affordable operations paradigm for both Hubble and Chandra. We have referred to this as a mini-Senior Review since it is taking place outside of the usual Senior Review cycle, but it will serve as an important mechanism to seek community guidance on how we might change the operating paradigms for these two missions.

In summary, within the guidelines of the FY25 PBR we cannot implement the Decadal Survey recommendations and maintain a balanced portfolio unless we transition the older Great Observatories to a lower operating-cost model. In this budget climate, maintaining these observatories operating at their current budget levels puts the future of astrophysics at risk.

The FY25 PBR is not clear on what aspects of the HST budget will be most affected. Can you give more detail about what aspects of the HST budget will change?  Will Hubble Fellowships be reduced, by how much, by what amount?

The Hubble budget line also contains the Hubble Fellows program and funding for the MAST archive. Impacts to Hubble will also be significant. We will review guidance we receive from the Review to determine a path forward. We have not yet determined if the Fellows program will be downsized, but so far have provided guidance that this should not happen.

How, if at all, will a mini-Senior Review change the budgets for HST or Chandra given the PBR?

We will review guidance we receive from the Review to determine a path forward.

How can future Senior Reviews be more helpful in planning for different budget scenarios?

Senior Reviews will continue to be the main approach to understanding the relative priority of APD's Astrophysics missions. It is not feasible for the Senior Review process to incorporate planning for different budget scenarios. Typically budgets for a budget planning cycle are embargoed until they are released, and there are many other factors that fall outside the scope of a Senior Review that impact budget decisions.

The FY25 PBR also states, “The reduction to Chandra will start orderly mission drawdown to minimal operations.” How would “minimal operations” affect Chandra’s ability for new observations? Or would that mostly support maintaining the orbit and data archiving?

We will review guidance we receive from the Review to determine a path forward that maximizes science return, but with a manageable operational cost.

The shutdown of Chandra would present a significant decrease to the future pre-eminence of the US in X-ray astronomy, with potential loss of expertise and future workforce development that would not necessarily be filled via smaller missions. When making decisions about funding priorities for missions, is one consideration the health and future development of the associated scientific communities? Are there plans to transition the workforce for Chandra to other projects? What opportunities are there for folks in the US X-Ray community after Chandra?

We hear and appreciate the concerns of the science community as we make difficult decisions in a challenging budget environment. Firstly, we are working to move Chandra to a new operations paradigm that is affordable in the current budget climate. APD also continues to operate a number of X-ray missions in addition to Chandra, including XMM, IXPE, NuSTAR, NICER, and XRISM. In addition, research support for these missions combined with other R&A programs fund the X-ray community at a level of ~$28M, in addition to X-ray technology development funding through Astrophysics Research and Analysis.