The Space Reviewin association with SpaceNews

A rainbow arcs over the SOFIA airborne observatory, a converted 747, while sitting on the tarmac at the airport in Christchurch, New Zealand, last July. SOFIA may have found a new pot of gold at the end of that rainbow to allow the program to continue in 2015. (credit: NASA/C. Thomas)

The changing fortunes of NASA astronomy missions

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What a difference a few months makes. In March, the future was looking dark for the Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy (SOFIA), a 747 jetliner equipped with a 2.5-meter telescope to perform observations above much of the infrared-absorbing atmosphere. NASA’s fiscal year 2015 budget proposal had, to the surprise of most in the astronomical community, slashed funding for SOFIA just as it was entering routine operations. Unless a new partner could step in to fill NASA’s shoes, the observatory was likely to be mothballed—perhaps permanently—in 2015 (see “Aborted takeoff”, The Space Review, March 17, 2014).

SOFIA’s supporters are, today, feeling better than they did three months ago. Provisions in appropriations bills making their way through Congress make it likely that SOFIA will get most, if not all, of its current budget in 2015, keeping the observatory in operation next year. Astronomers, however, have little time for celebration, as another observatory, this one in deep space, faces its own existential threat.

Congress to the rescue

When NASA unveiled its 2015 budget proposal in March, it cut funding for SOFIA from $87.4 million in its 2014 request (tweaked to $84.4 million when the agency released its 2014 operating plan in late April) to $12.3 million, funding intended to mothball the observatory if a new partner couldn’t be found to take over NASA’s 80-percent stake in SOFIA. (The German space agency DLR is the other partner on SOFIA.)

“The situation seems to have turned around, and we’re very hopeful right now,” Young said last week of SOFIA’s funding prospects.

NASA officials argued that the high costs of operating SOFIA—only the Hubble Space Telescope costs more to run among NASA’s astrophysics missions, excluding the under-development James Webb Space Telescope—was no longer affordable given current budgets and SOFIA’s scientific capabilities. “It turned out that we had to make very difficult choices about where we go with astrophysics and planetary science and Earth science, and SOFIA happened to be what fell off the plate this time,” NASA administrator Charles Bolden said at the time.

At a hearing of the Commerce, Justice, and Science (CJS) subcommittee of the House Appropriations Committee in early April, one member asked Bolden to elaborate on that decision. “What specific scientific and technical review and analysis was performed during the FY15 budget formulation process to support the proposal to cancel SOFIA?” asked Rep. Mike Honda (D-CA), whose district includes a small part of NASA’s Ames Research Center, home to the SOFIA program.

Bolden didn’t directly address that question, saying that studies by a joint NASA-DLR task force on SOFIA were still in progress, and that NASA was opening seeking partners to take over operation of the observatory. “My guess is that there will be people standing in line to add their funds to maintaining SOFIA” if the scientific promise of the observatory was high enough, Bolden said.

Honda was not assuaged by Bolden’s comments. “Your response is appreciated, but not sufficient in my mind,” he said.

Last month, House appropriators approved a CJS spending bill that provides nearly $17.9 billion for NASA, $435 million more than the original White House request. Part of that increase went to SOFIA, which would receive $70 million. That level, while below the observatory’s current operating budget, “should be sufficient to support the aircraft’s fixed costs (flight crews, required maintenance, etc.) as well as a base level of scientific observations,” the committee noted in the report accompanying the bill, adding that NASA should continue to seek new partners who could make up the difference.

The full House passed the spending bill late on May 29, keeping intact the SOFIA funding as well as essentially all other NASA-related provisions. Last week, as astronomers arrived in Boston for the 224th Meeting of the American Astronomical Society, program officials sounded optimistic for the first time about the future of SOFIA.

“The situation seems to have turned around, and we’re very hopeful right now,” said Erick Young, Science Mission Operations Director for SOFIA, during a town hall meeting about the observatory on June 3. He credited “advocacy from those outside the federal government” for the turnaround in SOFIA’s fortunes since the release of the 2015 budget proposal, as well as an increase in funding for NASA science programs in the House bill.

“Asking for new money is not part of my phase space,” Hertz said. “In order to consider Spitzer, we have to spend less money on something else we were planning to do.”

With greater certainty about SOFIA’s future—or, rather, that it has a future—the program is moving ahead with some long-term plans. Young said at the AAS meeting that the program will go ahead with a previously-planned “heavy maintenance” period for the 747, slated to start at the end of June in Germany. That will ensure that the aircraft is ready for the next round of observations, called “Cycle 3,” next year. The program is also going ahead with a call for proposals for Cycle 3; those proposals are due next month.

As the AAS meeting ended, astronomers got more good news. The Senate’s version of the CJS appropriations bill, approved by the Senate Appropriations Committee on Thursday, provides $87 million for SOFIA for fiscal year 2015. The report accompanying the bill chastised NASA for its attempt to cancel SOFIA without a review of the observatory’s scientific merit.

“The Committee disagrees with NASA’s effort to terminate the SOFIA mission and believes that such decisions for science missions should be made only after a senior review that evaluates the relative scientific benefit and return from continued investment,” the committee stated in the report.

Spitzer’s uncertain fate

The Senate report language referred to the “senior review” of ongoing astrophysics programs that the agency performs every two years to ensure that the scientific benefits of those missions merit continued operations of them. (SOFIA has been excluded from those senior reviews as NASA formally declared the program operational just last week.) The latest senior review, completed last month, offered bad news for another mission.

The Spitzer Space Telescope launched in 2003 as the last of NASA’s original “Great Observatories,” alongside the Hubble Space Telescope, Chandra X-Ray Observatory, and Compton Gamma-Ray Observatory. Spitzer completed its prime mission in 2009 when it exhausted its supply of liquid helium coolant. However, the telescope has continued observations at a reduced level—what NASA calls the “warm Spitzer” mission—and remains in good enough health to continue to do so for several more years.

The problem, though, is funding. While Spitzer’s operating costs of about $15 million a year are a small fraction of SOFIA’s costs, it’s still more than the other missions evaluated in the senior review. “[T]he overall proposed cost of continuing the warm Spitzer mission continues to present difficult challenges to the SRP [senior review panel],” the panel’s report noted after praising the mission’s science. “The cost is particularly difficult in the context of an observatory with greatly reduced capabilities with respect to its prime mission.”

The senior review panel recommended, reluctantly, that Spitzer not receive its requested (but unspecified) funding request for future years. In one overall budget scenario in the report, the panel recommended that if Spitzer could not operate at a reduced funding level, the program should be terminated. In a second, more pessimistic scenario, the panel simply recommended the program be terminated in fiscal year 2015.

NASA, in its response to the panel’s report, went along with that second scenario: “The Spitzer mission extension for FY 2015 is not approved due to the constrained budget conditions and based on the findings and recommendations of the Senior Review report.” The report, though, offered a potential reprieve, though: the Spitzer program could submit a revised proposal at a lower operating costs that NASA would consider as it drafts its fiscal year 2016 budget proposal over the summer.

“We have invited the Spitzer program to submit a reclama—that’s an appeal—to us as an overguide as part of our budget formulation process,” Paul Hertz, director of NASA’s astrophysics division, said at a NASA town hall meeting at the AAS conference June 2.

“The operation of the nation’s space borne observatories is so severely impacted by the current funding climate in Washington that the SRP feels that American pre-eminence in the study of the Universe from space is threatened to the point of irreparable damage” eithout additional funding, the panel warned.

If NASA decided to accept Spitzer’s revised proposal, though, it would need to find the money from elsewhere in the astrophysics program to pay for it. “Asking for new money is not part of my phase space,” he said. “In order to consider Spitzer, we have to spend less money on something else we were planning to do.”

At the town hall, Hertz said he’s asked his scientific advisory committees on advice on what could be cut elsewhere to free up money for Spitzer. “There’s a relatively small number of places where NASA astrophysics is spending money and where we could spend less to continue Spitzer,” he said.

Those constrained budgets weighed heavily on the senior review panel. “The operation of the nation’s space borne observatories is so severely impacted by the current funding climate in Washington that the SRP feels that American pre-eminence in the study of the Universe from space is threatened to the point of irreparable damage if additional funds cannot be found to fill the projected funding gaps,” the panel argued in its report, a warning it emphasized in bold print.

“When we heard what the [budget] guidelines were, we were horrified,” the panel’s chairman, Ben R. Oppenheimer of the American Museum of Natural History, wrote in a Los Angeles Times op-ed last week. “If the current budget guidelines are put into law, teams of scientists, engineers and software experts will be laid off. The collective talent of these groups will be permanently lost.”

The hope of astronomers is that Congress will come to the rescue, as it has with SOFIA, and provide additional funding to ease those budgetary stresses. And some of those astronomers might have initially cheered when they saw late last week that the Senate’s CJS spending bill provided $707.8 million for astrophysics, a $100-million increase over the administration’s request.

But that increase comes with strings attached. In addition to the $75-million increase for SOFIA, the bill sets aside $56 million for “pre-formulation” work on the Wide-Field Infrared Survey Telescope (WFIRST), a proposed space telescope ranked as the top priority in NASA’s most recent astrophysics decadal survey. NASA, which is considering a “new start” for WFIRST later this decade once spending on the James Webb Space Telescope ramps down, asked for only $14 million for WFIRST preparatory work.

In other words, while the Senate bill increases the astrophysics budget by $100 million, the increases for SOFIA and WFIRST total $117 million, meaning that NASA will have to make cuts elsewhere to make up the difference. Even when astrophysics wins, some of its program may still lose.