NASA Inspector General Paul Martin today released a report assessing NASA’s management of the Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy (SOFIA) Program that uses a Boeing 747 fitted with a 2.7-meter telescope to study the universe. The SOFIA Program, which in 2014 reached full operational capability after 23 years of development and at a cost of $1.1 billion, faces an uncertain future because the President’s fiscal year (FY) 2015 budget proposed placing the observatory in storage unless NASA could identify partners to subsidize its $80 million annual operating costs.
This Office of Inspector General (OIG) examined the long-term demand and viability of SOFIA over its planned 20-year operational life given that the Program is one of the most expensive in NASA’s science portfolio. SOFIA can observe both infrared and visible wavelengths and is particularly well suited for investigating the formation of massive stars and planets. The observatory’s nearly 9-foot telescope is exposed to the night sky through a uniquely designed cavity door at the rear of the plane at altitudes exceeding 40,000 feet – above 99 percent of water vapor that interferes with ground-based infrared observations.
The OIG found that despite substantial delays and a cost increase of more than 300 percent over original estimates, SOFIA is capable of adding to the scientific body of knowledge and many in the research community view the observatory as a valuable resource. However, the SOFIA Program is competing for limited funding and policymakers need to decide whether other NASA projects are a higher scientific and budgetary priority. If the decision is made to continue SOFIA, the OIG identified several challenges NASA managers need to address to ensure the best possible return on investment.
First, the Program must take steps to ensure that demand for the observatory, particularly from top-tier researchers, continues over SOFIA’s planned 20-year life. For example, we found NASA’s plans to introduce new technology into the observatory may be too infrequent. Specifically, current plans envision new technology updates approximately every 4 years instead of on a 2-year cycle, which some managers believe is more appropriate to ensure the Program maintains the research community’s interest and participation.
We also found that grants provided to many researchers may not be sufficient for them to complete SOFIA-related projects and publish their results given the complexity of the observations. In addition, we found SOFIA’s current requirement to fly 960 annual research hours may be too modest and the Program lacks procedures to assess its scientific “return on investment.” Failure by NASA to address these issues could reduce demand for the observatory and affect the quality of its science.
The OIG also found that the SOFIA Program’s proposed organizational structure for its operational phase does not provide adequate Government oversight of mission critical functions. Furthermore, the current contract does not meet Federal guidelines for providing civil servant oversight of mission critical functions such as the management, direction, and control over SOFIA’s science operations. Additionally, SOFIA’s current cost-plus-fixed-fee contract (in place since January 2007 and expiring in 2016) may not be the most cost efficient contract type for the Program’s operational phase.
Finally, the OIG found that the SOFIA Program faces challenges due to the Administration’s proposed budget cuts, the delay of planned aircraft maintenance, and the possible loss of key personnel during the period of congressional debate over the FY 2015 budget. As of July 2014, SOFIA Program management had not identified additional partners to assist with funding. At the same time, appropriations legislation moving in both the House of Representatives and Senate contained funding to continue the SOFIA Program.
In order to ensure long-term demand for and viability of SOFIA if it continues in operation, the OIG made 10 recommendations including that NASA formulate plans for new instruments and technology, outreach, and research funding; reassess planned annual research flight hour requirements; establish a timeline for reviewing SOFIA’s return on investment; and reassess the appropriateness of SOFIA’s planned organizational restructuring. NASA concurred with all of the recommendations and proposed corrective actions.