House Science Committee Questions Decision To Cancel SOFIA

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WASHINGTON — Members of the House Science Committee pressed President Barack Obama’s science adviser March 26 for an explanation why the administration’s fiscal year 2015 budget proposal seeks to cancel the Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy (SOFIA), and indicated there was bipartisan interest in keeping the program alive.

“I do not believe that the Congress is going to accept the elimination of SOFIA. There will be a bipartisan effort to change that,” said Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-Calif.) during a hearing on the administration’s 2015 budget request for science agencies.

Lofgren and other members of the committee questioned the hearing’s sole witness, Office of Science and Technology Director John Holdren, on why the budget proposal included only $12 million for SOFIA for fiscal 2015, which begins Oct. 1. That funding would be used to mothball the converted Boeing 747 aircraft should NASA not find a new partner to take over NASA’s 80 percent share of the telescope’s operating costs.

Holdren said the decision to cut funding for SOFIA was due to its expense. “Its high operating costs are difficult to accommodate within the current budget caps,” he said, adding that studies had indicated it was a lower scientific priority than other projects.

Rep. Steven Palazzo (R-Miss.), chairman of the committee’s space subcommittee, sought more details on the decision-making process. “We have to understand why we invested American taxpayer dollars to something that apparently was extremely important to NASA and, with just the wave of a wand, is no longer important,” he said. Holdren deferred to NASA for those details.

Holdren suggested at the hearing that SOFIA could be restored if Congress provides NASA with an additional $885 million requested as part of the administration’s Opportunity, Growth, and Security Initiative. “That SOFIA decision could be revisited” if the additional funding comes through, he said.

Later in the hearing, though, Rep. Chris Collins (R-N.Y.) noted that NASA’s plans for using that additional funding do not include SOFIA. “It’s hypocritical and disingenuous to leave this committee with the impression SOFIA was a priority, and it is clearly not,” he said during a brief and contentious exchange with Holdren.

Holdren said that NASA was actively looking for a new partner to join the German space agency, DLR, in operating SOFIA. “There’s just not enough money in the current budget to support the operating costs of that mission,” he said. “But if we can expand that partnership, that’s one avenue.”

The next day, NASA Administrator Charles Bolden told the House Science space subcommittee that SOFIA lost out to astrophysics missions with similar imaging capabilities in a science triage that took place in advance of the 2015 budget roll out.

“In comparison with other projects in the science portfolio, SOFIA did not rise to the level where we decided we were going to terminate another program,” Bolden said.

Bolden also told lawmakers NASA is working with DLR “to find ways that we can enhance the utilization of SOFIA for the rest of this fiscal year.” 

However, a day before Bolden testified, NASA Astrophysics Division Director Paul Hertz told a NASA Advisory Council panel the agency faces a Sept. 30, 2015, deadline for putting SOFIA into storage and likely will need to tap some of the $87.4 million budgeted this year for SOFIA science flights to get a head start on the shutdown effort. While NASA’s 2015 budget request includes $12 million to cover SOFIA closeout costs, Hertz said March 26 the agency “won’t be able to complete putting SOFIA into storage for $12 million if we don’t start until Oct. 1.” 

 

SpaceNews Staff Writer Dan Leone contributed to this story. 

 

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