NASA Does About-Face on SOFIA, Requests Full Funding

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WASHINGTON — About a year after it proposed grounding the Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy (SOFIA), the White House asked Congress to increase the budget for the telescope-equipped 747 aircraft.

As part of the 2016 budget request it released Feb. 2, NASA is seeking some $85 million for SOFIA, which would more than fully restore the roughly 20 percent cut the mission absorbed in 2015 as part of the omnibus spending bill signed in December (when Congress refused to go along with the White House’s plan to ground the mission). SOFIA, which cost about $1 billion to build, is a U.S.-German collaboration that features a 2.5-meter infrared telescope mounted aboard a modified Boeing 747.

Before the latest budget request dropped, Paul Hertz, NASA’s astrophysics director, said the agency would begin examining potential new SOFIA instruments in 2016.

“What they’ll be looking at is if you can do more science with fewer hours but better instruments,” Hertz said in a Jan. 28 interview at the National Science Foundation’s headquarters in Arlington, Virginia.

NASA Astrophysics Division Director Paul Hertz. Credit: NASA
NASA Astrophysics Division Director Paul Hertz. Credit: NASA

Hertz spoke to SpaceNews after briefing the multiagency Astronomy and Astrophysics Advisory Committee on the state of NASA astrophysics. In his presentation to the group, Hertz said the agency would not unilaterally attempt to cancel SOFIA again before putting it through the senior review process to which all operating NASA missions are subjected every two years.

The next such review for the astrophysics division is scheduled for 2016, and SOFIA will participate, according to the 2016 budget request.

Meanwhile, SOFIA’s smaller 2015 appropriation means the mission is adjusting to a “new normal” that calls for fewer, but hopefully more efficient, flights, Hertz said.

When NASA and the German space agency, DLR, were building SOFIA, the agencies envisioned a nine-month flying season in which SOFIA would log four flights a week. Additionally, crews would work over the weekend to swap out instruments.

But with the 2015 budget cut, NASA and DLR had to pivot. In the same nine-month season, the observatory is “flying three nights a week, which is our new normal,” Hertz said in his panel presentation. “We fly Tuesday night, Wednesday night and Thursday night. We check it out on Monday and then we put it to bed on Friday, so we’re not working over the weekends.”

SOFIA was declared operational in May 2014 after nearly a decade in development. The observatory is operated for NASA by the Universities Space Research Association of Columbia, Maryland, and flies out of NASA’s Armstrong Flight Research Center in Edwards, California.