SOFIA is a 747SP aircraft equipped with a 2.5-meter infrared telescope. Credit: NASA

PARIS — Germany remains hopeful of persuading NASA to reverse a decision to retire the U.S.-German SOFIA airborne infrared telescope in September as a cost-saving measure even as the plane, after two decades of development, only now enters fully operational status, the head of the German Aerospace Center, DLR, said March 19.

In an interview, Johann-Dietrich Woerner said negotiations with NASA over SOFIA’s future have taken on an additional urgency because the modified Boeing 747 aircraft will require a substantial maintenance check in June.

It makes no sense to perform the maintenance, to occur in Germany, if the SOFIA mission is going to be ended at the end of the U.S. government’s current fiscal year in September, Woerner said.

NASA has informed DLR that, due to budget pressures and the need to perform triage among valuable in-service missions, SOFIA will not receive NASA support after September.

Given the time constraints of the maintenance schedule, Woerner said, there is little possibility that DLR or NASA will be able to find a partner willing to step in and assume NASA’s 80 percent share of SOFIA’s annual operating costs of some $85 million per year.

“We are talking about something that is about 0.5 percent of NASA’s overall budget,” Woerner said of the costs of SOFIA, which stands for Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy. “The question of finding an additional partner is not today’s question. Today’s question is how to keep the mission going until 2016, as was stated in the original memorandum of understanding we had with NASA. If we can do this, both partners will have time to find other interested parties between now and 2016.”

Woerner said that despite the long development period, SOFIA entered full operations only this year, although initial science measurements were taken in 2010. Designed for a 20-year life, SOFIA’s retirement late this year would be a waste of German and U.S. taxpayer investment, he said.

“Our argument here is similar to our argument about the ISS,” Woerner said, referring to the international space station, whose use to 2020 and beyond is now being debated in Europe. “The argument is that if you pay a lot of money for something, you should use it for the purposes that drove the initial investment. Nothing has happened in the past few years that leads us to conclude that SOFIA is not a valuable platform.”

Woerner conceded that the memorandum of understanding between NASA and DLR on SOFIA does not constitute a binding document. Like most bilateral research endeavors, the two parties agreed to use their best efforts to maintain the project as it was originally designed, but there were no guarantees on this point.

“This is NASA’s decision, it is not DLR’s decision,” Woerner said. “We confirm our position that SOFIA is a valuable gap-filler between observations from the ground and those taken from satellites.”

Woerner said that without the scheduled maintenance work, SOFIA would need to be taken out of service by the end of the year.

He said that while he would not presume to advise NASA on its operational organization, reducing SOFIA’s management to one NASA center instead of the current two could offer cost savings.

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Peter B. de Selding was the Paris Bureau Chief for SpaceNews.