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A rainbow arcs over the SOFIA airborne observatory, a converted 747, while sitting on the tarmac at the airport in Christchurch, New Zealand, last July. Proposed budget cuts to NASA’s share of SOFIA’s operating costs could force it to be mothballed next year, just as it’s scheduled to begin normal operations. (credit: NASA/C. Thomas)

Aborted takeoff

Just as SOFIA prepares to enter routine observations, NASA seeks to end its funding

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Just a few weeks ago, things were looking up for the airborne astronomy observatory known as the Stratospheric Observatory For Infrared Astronomy (SOFIA). In a town hall with astronomers at the January meeting of the American Astronomical Society (AAS) outside Washington, DC, project officials pointed out recent accomplishments by SOFIA, ranging from its first deployment to the Southern Hemisphere (a campaign of flights based out of New Zealand), to observations of Comet ISON taken shortly before the comet disintegrated during its close approach to the Sun, to plans to finish the commissioning of the telescope’s suite of instruments.

“It turned out that we had to make very difficult choices about where we go with astrophysics and planetary science and Earth science, and SOFIA happened to be what fell off the plate this time,” Bolden said.

Moreover, after nearly two decades of often-troubled development, SOFIA was about to officially become operational. By March, project managers said, SOFIA would go through what is known in NASA project management parlance as Key Decision Point E (KDP-E), the milestone at which a project formally enters routine operations. “This year will mark the completion of the transition to the operations phase,” said SOFIA project scientist Pamela Marcum at the AAS town hall meeting. “It’s a full-on focus on science from here on out.” (see “An airborne telescope prepares for takeoff”, The Space Review, January 21, 2013)

Earlier, this month, though, even as NASA was finishing up those KDP-E reviews, the agency gave the project, and astronomers, an unpleasant surprise. The agency’s fiscal year 2015 budget proposal sharply reduced the budget for SOFIA, from $87.4 million in FY2014 to $12.3 million in 2015. And that limited funding would not be used for telescope operations: if NASA can’t find a partner to take over SOFIA’s regular operations, the observatory—a Boeing 747SP aircraft outfitted with a 2.5-meter telescope—would be mothballed by next year.

NASA leadership, in a briefing announcing the budget on March 4, said that limited resources forced them to end funding for SOFIA. “We had to make choices,” NASA administrator Charles Bolden said in response to a question about the observatory. He said NASA chose to spend the roughly $5 billion in the budget proposal for the agency’s science programs on other priorities, from development of the James Webb Space Telescope to operations of the Mars rover Curiosity and other planetary science missions. “SOFIA has earned its way, it has done very well, but I had to make a choice, and that choice was that we would focus on those other efforts.”

A budget document released by the White House’s Office of Management and Budget (OMB) was more blunt. “[T]he Budget sharply reduces funds for the Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy in order to fund higher priority science missions,” stated the section on NASA’s budget.

Earlier in the same document, it states that budget, among other things, “funds high priority planetary science missions, including efforts to detect and characterize potentially hazardous Earth asteroids, extension of an existing Saturn mission, and multiple missions focused on Mars exploration.” This led some to conclude that SOFIA was sacrificed in order to continue funding for the Cassini mission (the “existing Saturn mission” mentioned in the document), since there had been concerns NASA would not have enough money to fund the final years of Cassini’s mission (see “More missions than money”, The Space Review, November 11, 2013). However, in a briefing to a subcommittee of the NASA Advisory Council last week, Jim Green, director of NASA’s planetary sciences division, said there was no link between SOFIA and Cassini, blaming that perception on a poor choice of language in the OMB document.

At almost exactly the same time as NASA released its 2015 budget on March 4, Paul Hertz, director of NASA’s astrophysics division, was discussing his division’s programs in a briefing to the Committee on Astronomy and Astrophysics of the Space Studies Board (SSB) in Washington. Hertz noted that while astrophysics received $668 million in the final 2014 appropriations bill, the 2015 budget proposal only offers $607 million. “The astrophysics budget is significantly reduced, and within that reduced budget, SOFIA doesn’t fit any more,” he said.

Speaking at the American Astronautical Society’s Goddard Memorial Symposium outside Washington the next day, Bolden reiterated the decision to cut funding for SOFIA was based on the agency’s constrained budget. “It turned out that we had to make very difficult choices about where we go with astrophysics and planetary science and Earth science, and SOFIA happened to be what fell off the plate this time,” he said.

“Because SOFIA development has taken much longer than originally envisioned,” the NASA budget document stated, “the observatory will no longer provide the kind of scientific impact and synergies with other missions as once planned.”

What may have contributed to that decision was the combination of SOFIA’s high costs and perceived limited scientific return. In 2014, SOFIA accounts for 13 percent of the overall astrophysics budget, a larger share than any other program except for the Hubble Space Telescope, which received $98 million in 2014. (Development of the James Webb Space Telescope, at $645 million in the FY2015 request, is a separate line item in the budget from the astrophysics program.)

Hertz, speaking at the SSB meeting, said there wasn’t much NASA could do to lower those operations costs. Much of that expense, he said, goes towards jet fuel, maintenance and other overhead for safe flight operations, and mission planning activities, none of which could be reduced much. “We haven’t been able to find any significant savings” in two previous reviews of the program, he said. “It really does cost that much to operate safely.”

The detailed FY2015 budget justification document, which NASA released on March 10, also indicated that the scientific case for SOFIA was no longer as strong as previously stated. “The original case for compelling ‘Great Observatory’ science from SOFIA assumed an overlap with the Spitzer Space Telescope for complementary science observations and at least one year of operations prior to the launch of the Herschel Space Observatory,” it stated, referring to two space-based infrared observatories developed by NASA and ESA, respectively. However, long delays in developing SOFIA prevented that from happening: Spitzer, launched in 2003, has been operating in “warm” mode since 2009, when it ran out of liquid helium coolant; Herschel, launched in 2009, ended observations in 2013 and was shut off.

“Because SOFIA development has taken much longer than originally envisioned,” the NASA budget document continued, “the observatory will no longer provide the kind of scientific impact and synergies with other missions as once planned. Additionally, the James Webb Space Telescope, planned to launch in 2018, will provide data at mid-infrared wavelengths, partially mitigating the absence of SOFIA.”

Complicating matters, though, is the fact that NASA is not the only agency involved with SOFIA. The airborne observatory is run as a partnership between NASA and the German space agency DLR, with an 80/20 split in costs between them. At the rollout of the budget, Bolden and other NASA officials said they were in discussions with DLR about the future of SOFIA.

“We had a really fruitful conversation with [DLR chairman] Jan Wörner last week to talk about the budget and to talk about the implications for SOFIA,” Bolden said at the Goddard Symposium. “What Jan and I agreed was that we would put our heads together, the two agencies will form a team” to look at options for continuing SOFIA, including finding another partner to take over NASA’s share of SOFIA operating expenses. Hertz will head the NASA part of that team, Bolden said.

However, in a German-language blog post on the DLR website published Friday, Wörner indicated his displeasure with NASA’s decision to cut funding for SOFIA. He criticized the sudden, “overnight” changes in joint projects like this, citing NASA’s past decisions to back out of its partnership with ESA on the ExoMars program as well as NASA’s cancellation over a decade ago of the X-38 experimental spaceplane, for which DLR has developed the nose cap designed to withstand the high temperatures of reentry.

Wörner said that DLR was looking “very intensely” for options to keep SOFIA in operation, but emphasized the importance of stability in international partnerships, suggesting that DLR’s current relationship with NASA lacked that. “I see in international cooperation a great value, which must also be characterized by exceptional reliability,” he wrote.

This would not be the first time that SOFIA has had a brush with death. In early 2006, NASA announced as part of its fiscal year 2007 budget request that it would be withholding funds for the project as it conducted a review of the project, and included no money for the program in that budget request. By mid-2006, though, NASA had concluded that the program was back on track, and funding for the program was later restored.

The language in the fiscal year 2007 budget request, which announced that review, sounds strikingly similar to the document issued last week. “The case for compelling ‘Great Observatory’ science from SOFIA assumed a minimum 12-month overlap with Spitzer for complementary science observations and a minimum one year of operations prior to the launch of the Herschel mission,” it stated, then citing the delays in SOFIA that would prevent that from happening.

“I see in international cooperation a great value, which must also be characterized by exceptional reliability,” DLR’s Wörner wrote.

A year later, after SOFIA had passed over the hurdle of that review, the language in NASA’s FY2008 budget request was quite different, with no mention of the lack of synergies with Herschel and Spitzer. “SOFIA offers a unique world-class facility for infrared astronomy covering parts of the spectrum that cannot be covered from the ground,” the section of the 2008 budget justification document about SOFIA stated. “SOFIA also offers operational and technological flexibility that no spacecraft can offer, because it can be deployed to multiple locations and the observatory and its instrument suite can be changed and upgraded over its planned 20-year life.”

Part of that change in mind went beyond the review of the SOFIA project itself to reactions from the scientific community and from Germany. Wörner, in his blog post, noted that DLR made a “massive intervention” in 2006 when NASA proposed terminating SOFIA. So far, the astronomical community has not been vocal about the proposed cuts, with many privately admitting they were taken by surprise by NASA’s decision.

In a statement Thursday, the Planetary Society mentioned the cuts to SOFIA as one of several aspects of the overall NASA budget it was concerned with. SOFIA, Planetary Society president Jim Bell said in the statement, “has only recently begun full science operations and which can make important contributions to solar system and extrasolar planetary astronomy.”

The timing of NASA’s decision to cut SOFIA has puzzled many, coming just as the observatory was entering routine operations. (Those operations would be curtailed this year regardless of the decision about SOFIA’s future, since the aircraft will undergo several months of previously-scheduled “heavy maintenance” later this year, but was planned to ramp up again in 2015.) SOFIA, after all, had gone through a long and difficult development, during which its cost rose from $265 million in 1997 to $1.1 billion today while the date for full operational capability slipped from 2001 to 2014. However, by all accounts the observatory had survived those challenges was now, finally, ready to delivery on its scientific potential.

“SOFIA has been an incredible asset, and people have asked if it’s worth the money that’s been spent on it,” Bolden said at the Goddard Symposium. “I would say a resounding ‘yes.’ SOFIA has flown in the US, Germany, down in New Zealand, and has given us some incredible data that we’ll probably be analyzing for quite some time.”

However, astronomers had hoped that SOFIA would be flying for 20 more years, providing even more “incredible data” for them. To make that happen, astronomers and others will either have to ramp up their lobbying efforts to overturn the proposed cut when the House and Senate draft their appropriations bills later this year, or else be creative in ways to find new partners to take over telescope operations.