International Project Features 20-ton, German Telescope on NASA 747 Aircraft

New York, NY – L-3 Communications announced today that NASA’s Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy (SOFIA), completed its first test flight following extensive aircraft modification and telescope integration at the company’s L-3 Integrated Systems (L-3 IS) Waco, Texas facility. SOFIA is a Boeing 747SP extensively modified to carry a 45,000-pound (20 metric ton), 98.4-inch (2.5-meter) diameter infrared telescope assembly provided by the German Aerospace Center, DLR. SOFIA will fly at altitudes up to 45,000 feet (13.7 km) – above more than 99 percent of the Earth’s water vapor – to capture infrared images and spectra not possible by even the largest ground-based telescopes.

One of the most dramatic physical modifications ever made to a 747 aircraft, L-3 Communications performed the modification without the involvement of the aircraft’s original equipment manufacturer. “SOFIA reflects the expertise that makes L-3 Integrated Systems the industry’s most accomplished independent aircraft integrator,” said Bob Drewes, Corporate Senior Vice President, and President and Chief Operating Officer of the L-3 Integrated Systems Group. “This flying observatory combines extensive aeronautical engineering and our major modification ability to produce a flying marvel.” “We are thrilled that SOFIA has taken to the air and congratulate L-3 on their accomplishment. We look forward to the day when SOFIA will become a world-class astronomical research facility.” said Dr. Frederick A. Tarantino, president of Universities Space Research Association (USRA), SOFIA’s science and mission operations contractor.

The program was awarded by NASA in 1996 to a combined U.S. and German team that includes L-3 and the Universities Space Research Association (USRA). The first metal on the aircraft was cut by L-3 in 2000, as installation began on a reinforced, pressurized bulkhead that helped create a cavity in the rear of the aircraft where the telescope assembly was later installed. In addition to the aircraft structural modifications and the telescope assembly installation, major aircraft activities included:

  • Installation of an approximately 16-foot (more than 4.5-meters) tall cavity door designed to open in flight to permit telescope observations;
  • Installation of a complex liquid-nitrogen cooling system used to pre-cool the telescope cavity to match thermal conditions when the cavity door is opened at altitude;
  • Performance of heavy depot-level maintenance and service bulletin incorporation on the 747SP, which flew in commercial service from 1977 to 1995.

Headquartered in New York City, L-3 Communications is a leading provider of Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance (ISR) systems, secure communications systems, aircraft modernization, training and government services. The company is a leading merchant supplier of a broad array of high technology products, including guidance and navigation, sensors, scanners, fuses, data links, propulsion systems, simulators, avionics, electro optics, satellite communications, electrical power equipment, encryption, signal intelligence, antennas and microwave components. To learn more about L-3 Communications, please visit the company’s Web site at .

USRA is a nonprofit consortium of universities established in 1969 by the National Academy of Sciences and now comprised of 101 member universities. The consortium’s mission is to advance space-related sciences and exploration through innovative research, technology and educational programs; to promote space policy; and to develop and operate premier facilities and programs, by involving universities, the private sector and governments. More information about USRA can be found at More information about SOFIA can be found at


Lance Martin
L-3 Integrated Systems
Dana Backman
SOFIA / USRA & SETI Institute