NASA IG: Scientists Like SOFIA, But Changes Needed to Keep it That Way

NASA IG: Scientists Like SOFIA, But Changes Needed to Keep it That Way

Despite its problematic development history, NASA’s Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy (SOFIA) remains capable of contributing to—and is regarded favorably in large part by—the science community, according to a report from NASA’s Office of Inspector General (OIG) released Wednesday (July 9).

“However, we understand that the SOFIA Program is competing for limited resources and policymakers will have to decide whether other NASA projects are a higher scientific and budgetary priority,” the 48-page report said.

The airborne observatory—a modified Boeing 747SP plane equipped with an approximately 9-foot diameter telescope—studies the universe in infrared wavelengths. That region of the electromagnetic spectrum is emitted by stars and planets and its trail, though invisible to human eyes, can be analyzed to help scientists better understand how the celestial bodies formed, the chemistry of interstellar material, and the environments around supermassive black holes.

NASA’s Armstrong Flight Research Center (AFRC, formerly Dryden) and Ames Research Center in California manage SOFIA. The observatory, based at AFRC, can be flown to almost anywhere in the world, exceed a 40,000-foot altitude and return immediately.  The capabilities complement ground- and space-based telescopes by allowing SOFIA to avoid water vapor in the lower atmosphere that can interfere with infrared observations and enable researchers to continuously test new instruments.

NASA began formulating plans for SOFIA in 1991 in partnership with its German counterpart, DLR.  In February of this year, the observatory became fully operational after more than 17 years in development—13 years longer than originally planned, with a development cost of $1.1 billion—more than 300 percent over the original estimate, the OIG report highlighted.  That figure does not include annual operating costs.

SOFIA’s “$3 billion life-cycle cost estimate, which includes a planned 20-year operational life and annual operating costs of approximately $80 million” makes it “the second most expensive operating mission for NASA’s Astrophysics Division after the Hubble Space Telescope.”

The program’s future is currently being debated between Congress and the Obama Administration.

For FY2015, President Obama is asking Congress for $12.3 million for the program.  The program typically is funded at about $80 million per year to cover NASA’s 80 percent share of the operating costs; DLR pays the other 20 percent.

The Obama Administration’s proposal is to mothball SOFIA because of its high operating costs and, in its opinion, lower priority than other NASA astrophysics programs.  The requested funding is to terminate the program in a manner that would allow the observatory to be reactivated in the future if more money is available. NASA has permission to seek other partners to defray some of the operating costs.  NASA, however, has not identified additional partners and DLR has declined to increase its commitment, the OIG report said.  It also found that NASA program officials viewed the proposed $12.3 million as “insufficient even to shut down the program.”

Congress, conversely, is pushing to keep the program alive.

A new NASA authorization bill —which provides policy guidelines and funding recommendations—has yet to pass both chambers. The version passed by the House last month (H.R. 4412) contains language forbidding the agency from using any funds in the current FY2014 to shut down SOFIA. The Senate is working on its version of the bill.

Congress is also working on the FY2015 appropriations bill for NASA, which is part of the Commerce-Justice-Science (CJS) bill.  The House version, H.R. 4660, passed in May.  The Senate Appropriations Committee has reported its version (S. 2437), which is awaiting floor action.  The House version allocates $70 million for SOFIA, compared to its FY2014 appropriated level of $86.4 million.  The Senate bill includes $87 million.  Both specifically reject the Administration’s proposal to mothball SOFIA.

The OIG investigation noted the uncertainty about the program’s future and potential ramifications, including “possible reactivation, how to retain key staff, and whether to move forward with planned research and maintenance activities.”

The report identified seven issues for NASA to consider that could affect scientific demand for SOFIA and the observatory’s long-term performance:

  • More Frequent Infusion of New Technology
  • Lack of a Formal Outreach Plan to Engage Science Community
  • Insufficient Funding to Complete Research Projects
  • Lack of Timely Data
  • No Formal Rescheduling Process for Cancelled Observations
  • Research Flight Hour Requirement May Not Provide Most Efficient Use of the Observatory
  • Periodic Assessments Needed to Assess Cost Efficiency of SOFIA’s Science

NASA should also consider alternatives to the cost-plus-fixed-fee contract with the Universities Space Research Association (USRA) in Maryland when it expires in 2016, the OIG said: “Proceeding into the operational phase with an organizational structure and contract type that does not provide management with the proper tools … may not be the most effective and cost efficient option.”

The agency has concurred with the recommendations and proposed corrective actions, the report said.

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