Although a final resolution may not come until late this year, when Congress finally approves a fiscal year 2015 appropriations bill, it appears that NASA’s Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy (SOFIA) program has survived its near-death experience. While the administration’s 2015 budget request slashed SOFIA’s funding and recommended it be placed in storage should NASA be unable to find partners to pick up the airborne observatory’s tab, both the House and Senate versions of appropriations bills that fund NASA include full or nearly full funding for SOFIA.
However, the agency believes there’s still ways to improve the operations of the observatory, which costs NASA more than $80 million in fiscal year 2014. Last month, the Office of the Inspector General (OIG) at NASA issued a report on SOFIA, making a number of recommendations on steps NASA could take to improve the scientific output of the observatory and streamline its operations. That includes a plan for technology upgrades to SOFIA and improving the delivery of data to researchers after their flights. The OIG report also recommended changes to the contract NASA has with the Universities Space Research Association (USRA) for SOFIA operations, including a shift from a cost-plus to a fixed-price contract after the current contract ends in 2016.
NASA accepted the recommendations of the OIG report, which Paul Hertz, director of NASA’s astrophysics division, confirmed in a presentation to the astrophysics subcommittee of the NASA Advisory Council’s Science Committee on Monday. In addition to the OIG report, he said, he also convened “senior members of our community” to look at future plans for SOFIA, including what to do should the program’s budget be reduced. Their findings, he said, resonated with the OIG report.
Hertz said the main funding from the OIG report is that NASA’s current metric for the effectiveness of SOFIA, the number of science flight hours, may not be the best one. NASA currently has a goal of 960 research hours per year with SOFIA. The OIG report said that 960-hour calculation, done in the mid-1990s, hasn’t been updated to reflect changes in flight operations, including the ability to do more more science per flight and a higher reliability of the aircraft and instruments. “[I]t appears the Program is capable of more than 960 research flight hours per year,” the report concluded, recommending that the hours requirement be balanced “with quality of science and other competing priorities – such as technology upgrades, outreach activities, and researcher funding.”
Hertz said NASA concurred, and would look at trades between flight hours and supporting instrument development. He added that SOFIA, which entered its formal operational phase earlier this summer, would be subject to a senior review alongside other astrophysics missions “at an appropriate time.”