Three months after the White House’s budget proposal appeared to spell doom for NASA’s Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy (SOFIA)—a funding cut that would have likely required mothballing the telescope in 2015—project officials are optimistic enough about the observatory’s future that they are moving ahead with plans for future observation cycles and maintenance of the aircraft.
“The situation seems to have turned around, and we’re very hopeful right now,” said Erick Young, Science Mission Operations Director for SOFIA, in a town hall meeting about the observatory at the American Astronomical Society (AAS) meeting in Boston Tuesday evening. That optimism was based, at that time, on the $70 million included for SOFIA in the Commerce, Justice, and Science (CJS) appropriations bill the House passed last week. Since Tuesday’s town hall meeting, Senate appropriators have provided $87 million—effectively the same as 2014—for SOFIA in its fiscal year 2015 CJS spending bill.
Young credited “advocacy from those outside the federal government” for the turnaround in SOFIA’s fortunes in the last three months, as well as an increase in science funding overall for NASA in the Congressional bills. “A very importart part of the message is that SOFIA is benefitting because science overall is getting increased in the Congressional actions,” he said. (The unstated alternative, of course, would be SOFIA getting an increase at the expense of other science programs.)
Young said that with the increasing confidence that SOFIA will be funded for 2015, the program is moving ahead with long-term plans observatory. That includes a scheduled “heavy maintenance” for the 747 aircraft in Germany, scheduled to begin at the end of June. A call for proposals for “Cycle 3″ of SOFIA observations, which will run from March 2015 to January 2016, remains underway, with proposals due next month.