How the U.S. government’s budget process works has always been something of a mystery to outsiders. To researchers working on NASA’s Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy (SOFIA), that process just got a whole lot more mysterious.
In its 2015 budget proposal unveiled last week, the White House proposed mothballing SOFIA, a modified Boeing 747 outfitted with a 2.5-meter infrared telescope and other instruments. The move would save some $80 million, the agency said, which could be redirected to higher priority missions.
Yet, just days before the budget was released, NASA managers were sending congratulatory e-mails to the Universities Space Research Association (USRA)—the contractor for SOFIA—on the successful commissioning of all of SOFIA’s instruments on a 20 February test flight.
“Congratulations to the entire SOFIA team,” one senior NASA administrator wrote in an e-mail on 21 February. “We are all proud of you and grinning like madmen here at HQ.”
That’s why the mothballing proposal came as a “complete shock,” says Erick Young, the head of SOFIA’s science mission operations at NASA’s Ames Research Center in Mountain View, California. “We’ve been working for the past couple of years to achieve full operational capability. We had until the end of 2014 to meet that milestone, and we satisfied that 2 weeks ago. We were under budget.”
A partnership between NASA and the German Aerospace Center, SOFIA receives the bulk of its funding from NASA. It has cost $1.25 billion so far. NASA requested $87 million for SOFIA in 2014 and spent nearly that much on the project in the last fiscal year.
Even though the eventual fate of the project will depend on how Congress reacts to the White House proposal in the coming months, Young says the uncertainty will make it “difficult to manage the project” in the interim. A U.S.-German task force will work out the different scenarios and try to figure out the best path forward, he says. One of the big questions, he says, is whether to proceed with a scheduled heavy maintenance due in June. “It doesn’t make sense to spend all that money on maintenance if we are going to ground the plane,” he says.
Between now and June, however, SOFIA will continue flying. “The best way to show the value of SOFIA is to just produce science,” Young says. “That’s what we will be focusing on.”