Editorial | U.S. and German Tax Dollars at Waste

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Whether or not astronomers are outraged by the White House’s plan to ground an airborne observatory shortly after the start of its mission, U.S. and German taxpayers certainly should be. Because if the decision, announced March 4 with the unveiling of NASA’s $17.5 billion budget request for 2015, is allowed to stand, that’s $1 billion of their hard-earned money down the drain.

That’s how much money NASA and the German space agency, the DLR, spent to develop the Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy (SOFIA), a 2.5-meter telescope mounted on a modified Boeing 747 aircraft. SOFIA, which has been undergoing flight-testing for the past three years, is only slated to begin full-scale science operations this year.

Moreover, it appears that the program, which encountered major cost overruns and lengthy delays during a development effort spanning 15 years, appears to have finally found a measure of stability. The U.S. Government Accountability Office last year pegged SOFIA’s life-cycle cost, including development and 20 years of operations, at $3 billion, relatively unchanged from NASA estimates from 2010. 

Yet sometime in the last year, NASA determined it could not afford its 80 percent share of SOFIA’s $85 million annual operating cost. The DLR, which was informed of the U.S. plan to ground the observatory the week before it was publicly announced, says it does not have the resources to pick up the slack. 

In other words, unless some other source of funding is found, SOFIA’s mission will end Sept. 30, just a few months after it starts. 

NASA proposed canceling SOFIA in 2006 amid frustration over the observatory’s development problems. By that time, the program was well behind schedule — initial flights originally were scheduled for 2002 — and its projected price tag had soared from $350 million to nearly $1 billion. Germany, the astronomy community and members of the U.S. Congress protested, however, and NASA, after concluding that there were no technical showstoppers to completing SOFIA’s development, reinstated the program. 

But that came at a cost: To cover the funding balance on SOFIA, NASA, which by that time had sunk some $500 million into the project, dramatically scaled back work on the planet-hunting Space Interferometry Mission, effectively turning it into a technology development activity.

Now it seems SOFIA has become the bill payer for higher-priority programs. NASA officials said budget pressures forced them to choose between the airborne observatory and one of two ongoing planetary flagship missions: the $3.37 billion Cassini Saturn orbiter, whose current extended mission is slated to last until 2017; and the $2.5 billion Mars Curiosity rover, which is slated to begin its extended mission in 2015.

That’s not much of a choice. The idea of shutting down Curiosity after just two years is obviously a nonstarter, and Cassini, even though its primary mission ended in 2008, remains relatively healthy. Cassini’s current mission extension will allow it to complete a full seasonal cycle of observations of Saturn and its moons. 

But even if one accepts NASA’s explanation that grounding SOFIA was the agency’s least-worst option, that doesn’t make the resulting waste of $1 billion any easier to swallow. It never should have come to this: Surely NASA recognizes that taking on a large-scale development program necessarily means accepting responsibility for its long-term care and feeding. It’s a bit like having children. 

Congress should scour NASA’s 2015 budget request to see if there isn’t money tucked away somewhere that might be diverted to SOFIA operations. NASA and the DLR, meanwhile, should leave no stone unturned in their search for potential contributors to the mission. One that immediately comes to mind is the National Science Foundation, which funds ground-based astronomy activities and whose $7 billion-plus budget has grown in recent years. 

Unless SOFIA was a bad investment to begin with — in which case NASA, the DLR and the astronomy community have a much bigger problem — its proposed grounding should not be accepted lying down. SOFIA’s stakeholders absolutely owe it to the taxpayers to fight to the last man to save this mission.