NASA chooses Falcon Heavy to launch Roman Space Telescope

WASHINGTON — NASA has selected SpaceX to launch the Nancy Grace Roman Space Telescope on a Falcon Heavy, but at a price significantly higher than previous agency contracts.

NASA announced on July 19 that it has awarded SpaceX a contract to launch Roman on the company’s Falcon Heavy rocket from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida in October 2026. The contract is worth $255 million for launch and other mission-related costs.

Roman is the next major, or flagship, astrophysics mission after the James Webb Space Telescope. The spacecraft features a 2.4-meter primary mirror, donated to NASA by the National Reconnaissance Office ten years ago, with a large-field instrument and coronagraph to conduct research in cosmology, exoplanets and general astrophysics.

The spacecraft, with a mass of about 4,200 kilograms, will operate from the Earth-Sun L-2 Lagrange point, a region of space about 1.5 million kilometers from Earth in the direction away from the Sun. That’s the same location where JWST and several other astrophysics missions operate.

The value of the launch contract is much higher than most previous NASA awards for Falcon Heavy missions. NASA awarded SpaceX a year ago a contract for a Falcon Heavy launch of the Europa Clipper mission to Jupiter in 2024 worth $178 million. A September 2021 contract for the Falcon Heavy launch of the GOES-U weather satellite, also in 2024, is worth $152.5 million.

SpaceX is offering the Falcon Heavy for a commercial list price of $97 million. The company raised that price from $90 million earlier this year, citing “excessive levels of inflation.”

SpaceX may not have had any competition for the Roman launch. Tory Bruno, CEO of United Launch Alliance, tweeted in February that his company did not bid on the launch. His company’s Vulcan Centaur has yet to make its first launch. Blue Origin’s New Glenn is also yet to be launched.

Roman is an important mission for NASA, not only for science, but also for program management. Previously called the Wide Field Infrared Survey Telescope (WFIRST), the mission is the top-priority flagship mission of the decade-long astrophysics survey. The most recent decade-long study, published in November 2021, concluded that Roman “remains both potent and necessary to achieve the scientific goals,” as outlined in the earlier study.

Despite early challenges and various budget proposals from the agency that aimed to end the mission, Roman has moved on. Last year, however, the mission had a seven-month launch delay and a $382 million increase in costs that the agency blamed for the effects of the pandemic. The mission now has a total lifecycle cost of $4.32 billion.

A Government Accountability Office review of major NASA programs published in June warned of the potential for further delays in Roman, citing problems with the spacecraft’s primary transom assembly and the spacecraft’s release actuators.

Keeping Roman on track and on budget, agency officials said, is critical to building confidence that it can manage major science missions after the significant cost and schedule overruns with JWST. Only then, they say, can NASA pursue large space telescopes like those approved by the latest astrophysics-decadal survey, such as a six-meter space telescope for observations in optical, ultraviolet and infrared wavelengths.

“Number one on the priority list is to make sure the Roman Space Telescope is delivered within our cost and schedule commitments,” said Paul Hertz, director of NASA’s astrophysics division, at a June meeting of the American Astronomical Society.

“Unless NASA can demonstrate that we have learned lessons from the mistakes made in the management of the James Webb Space Telescope program, and we can demonstrate that we can apply those lessons to another very expensive, very difficult large observatory, such as the Nancy Grace Roman Space Telescope, no one will take us seriously,” he argued.