Proposed SOFIA Cancellation Rankles Congress, Scientists

Proposed SOFIA Cancellation Rankles Congress, Scientists

NASA’s proposal to mothball the Stratospheric Observatory For Infrared Astronomy (SOFIA) is not being well received in Congress or the astrophysics community.  The proposal is part of NASA’s FY2015 budget request.

SOFIA is a modified 747 aircraft that carries a 100-inch (2.5 meter) diameter infrared telescope. It is a joint project between NASA and the German Aerospace Center (DLR).  About $1 billion has been spent on the project over many years and it is just at the point of being fully certified as operational.   NASA’s Armstrong Flight Research Center (formerly Dryden FRC) in California is its home port, but it can also fly from other locations around the globe.  SOFIA reaches an altitude of about 43,000 feet, above much of the atmosphere that absorbs infrared light, so the higher the better.  Educators designated “Airborne Astronomy Ambassadors” often join astronomers aboard the plane for hands-on experience.

SOFIA’s international collaboration and appeal to educators in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) fields make it appealing to a much broader community than astrophysicists.

NASA’s FY2015 budget request proposes placing the airplane in storage until and unless a better budgetary situation arises.  The $84 million in FY2014 would drop to $12 million in FY2015 and to zero in FY2016, giving the agency little time to plan.

Republicans and Democrats on the House Science, Space and Technology (SS&T) Committee grilled Presidential Science Adviser John Holdren about the decision to mothball  SOFIA at a hearing this morning.  At the very same time a few blocks away, members of the NASA Advisory Council’s Astrophysics Subcommittee were asking similar questions of NASA officials.

The hearing broadly addressed President Obama’s FY2015 budget request for science and technology, but the questions focused on two topics:  climate change and SOFIA.  Holdren was the only witness.  NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden is scheduled to testify to the committee tomorrow morning (March 27).

A surprising number of House SS&T committee members from both parties made clear their disagreement with the proposal to mothball SOFIA.   Some argued in favor of the program on STEM grounds, others because of its impact on international partnerships and the large investment already made in the program.  Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-CA) summed it up by saying “I do not believe that the Congress is going to accept the elimination of SOFIA … there will be a bipartisan effort to change that and I hope and plan to be part of that bipartisan effort.”

Among those in favor of SOFIA was Rep. Steve Palazzo (R-MS) who chairs the committee’s Space Subcommittee.  He asked Holdren why SOFIA no longer is important and what kind of message the United States is sending to its European space partners at a time when China is trying to make inroads there.  He also asked if there had been an independent review of the program.

Holdren replied that it was not a matter of importance, but that the operating costs were too high for today’s budget environment, but if Congress approved the President’s Opportunity, Growth, and Security Initiative (OGSI), the SOFIA decision would be revisited.   As to whether there had been an independent review, he deferred to NASA Administrator Bolden.

OGSI is the President’s request for $56 billion across the government in FY2015 above the budget caps that he and Congress agreed to in December.   NASA would get $885.5 million of that amount.  The “base” FY2015 budget request that mothballs SOFIA, however, adheres to the budget caps.  The OGSI represents the additional funds the President would like to allocate to agencies like NASA if the money were available.

Later in the hearing, however, Rep. Chris Collins (R-NY) challenged Holdren on his statement about revisiting SOFIA if Congress approves the OGSI.  He held up a copy of a document explaining how the OGSI funds would be spent and noted that SOFIA was not included.  “SOFIA is not listed there … why have you left this committee with the impression that SOFIA is a priority of the administration when clearly it is not?”  During the tense exchange, Holdren conceded that SOFIA is a “lower priority than other things we are funding.”

Overall, the congressional committee members wanted to understand the process by which the decision was made to terminate funding for SOFIA.

That was the same question being asked at a meeting of the Astrophysics Subcommittee (APS) of the NASA Advisory Council that met at NASA Headquarters today.  The meeting continues tomorrow.

APS members asked many of the same questions – basically, what was the process for determining that SOFIA would be mothballed just as it was being certified as operational and the impact on future international space science collaboration.

Paul Hertz, Director of NASA’s astrophysics division, answered that the budget simply did not support SOFIA.  Describing the intricacies of how budgets are developed, he explained that the December agreement on budget caps for FY2014 and FY2015 in the Bipartisan Budget Act (BBA) changed the dynamics of the FY2015 budget request with sudden alterations to his budget profile.  To meet the new budget caps, SOFIA needed to be defunded.   He noted that a joint NASA-DLR working group has been established and is on a tight schedule to make recommendations on a path forward.  Its final report is due on April 25.

DLR told NASA that it cannot increase its 20 percent contribution to the program’s roughly $100 million per year operating budget.  Hertz said NASA will seek other international partners.

John Grunsfeld, head of NASA’s Science Mission Directorate (SMD, of which astrophysics is part) joined the APS discussion later.  He agreed with sentiments expressed by APS members that a preferable scenario would allow SMD to phase out SOFIA on a longer time scale, giving it time to go through a Senior Review.   NASA’s Senior Review process assesses operating science missions on a competitive basis and determines which should continue to be funded.  Grunsfeld said the science case for SOFIA is better than it has ever been, but “this isn’t a science discussion, it’s a budget discussion,” adding that “Hopefully we’ll find a path forward.  If you’ve got better ideas, I’m all ears.”

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