NASA's SOFIA--the Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy--promises unique scientific and educational opportunities. SOFIA is a flying observatory: a highly modified Boeing 747-SP that will carry a 2.5 meter telescope to the stratosphere to conduct infrared astronomical observations that are impossible from ground-based observatories because of the water and carbon dioxide in Earth's atmosphere. As Professor Charles Townes, Nobel Laureate, co-inventor of the laser, and infrared astronomer, states "Adequately supported, SOFIA can be the world's leading far-infrared and sub-millimeter observatory for much of the next 20 years."
On Monday, Feb. 7, USRA and L-3, the subcontractor who modified the aircraft, announced that the external aircraft modifications were complete with the telescope installed. Flight-testing is scheduled later in this calendar year. This is good news.
The same day, NASA Administrator Griffin announced the proposed agency budget for FY 2007 SOFIA has zero funding from 2007 onward. This is not good news for SOFIA, nor for the U. S. and German scientific, technological and educational communities.
There is a caveat in the NASA budget announcement: "As a result of ongoing cost growth due to technical and schedule problems, NASA will conduct a review of the SOFIA project in early 2006 and coordinate the Agency's analysis and position on SOFIA with the German Aerospace Center (DLR) according to the Memorandum of Understanding between the two agencies. This review will allow NASA to determine the best course of action, given the project's status as well as competing science requirements." (NASA Budget: SAE SMD 1-4, and SAE SMD 3-23)
SOFIA has been under development by NASA and its international partner, the German Aerospace Center (Deutschen Zentrum für Luft- und Raumfahrt or DLR) since 1996. NASA provided the aircraft and modifications through prime contractor Universities Space Research Association (USRA), and Germany constructed the telescope. Roughly, the U. S. funded 80% and Germany 20% of SOFIA's cost with the intent of a long-term partnership to operate the observatory together over the next two decades. SOFIA will conduct excellent scientific research and perform as a test bed for new detectors and instruments that ultimately will fly in space. But, only, as Dr. Townes noted, with adequate support.
Beyond its scientific promise, SOFIA is a research observatory that can enhance the quality of science, engineering and technology education, and strengthen the U. S. workforce. Like its predecessor, NASA's Kuiper Airborne Observatory (KAO), which operated for more than two decades, SOFIA is accessible. Undergraduate and graduate students in astronomy, engineering, computer sciences, systems engineering and affiliated fields will be engaged in designing and constructing instruments as well as planning and conducting research missions.
More than fifty scientists obtained their PhDs with data collected onboard the KAO. These scientists have gone on to productive careers with NASA space missions, at research universities, and in industry. Even before its maiden flight, SOFIA's instrument design and construction has resulted in at least six new PhDs at affiliated research universities that are developing instruments for SOFIA. Over its projected lifespan, SOFIA will be an important training facility for scientists, engineers and technologists who will join the workforce pipeline supporting NASA's future space missions.
The pipeline to NASA careers begins before college. Several recent reports have noted the decline in the number of US citizens selecting science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) undergraduate majors. K-12 teachers make a difference in their students' career choices. I recently received a letter from a teacher who flew on the KAO. As a result of her teacher's experiences with NASA, a third-grade girl decided to "work for NASA" when she grew up, and was now studying robotics in college. Teachers make a difference, and SOFIA promises a unique opportunity to enhance the quality of science and mathematics teachers in America.
In the recent National Academies (Science, Engineering and Medicine) report to Congress, "Rising Above the Gathering Storm: Energizing and Employing America for a Brighter Economic Future", the top priority is to "recruit ten thousand teachers, educate ten million minds" to:
- Increase America's talent pool by vastly improving K-12 mathematics and science education,
- Strengthen two hundred fifty thousand teachers' skills,
- Inspire students every day, and
- Enlarge the pipeline.
SOFIA was designed and constructed to allow pre-college teachers to participate in front-line research onboard the observatory in partnership with scientists. Based upon experiences with the KAO, teacher participation in actual scientific research strengthens classroom teaching, produces teacher-leaders, and retains science teachers long-term in the classroom. Teacher retention is important: half of new teachers leave the classroom in the first five years of teaching.
The SOFIA education and public outreach program's keystone project is scientific training and research flights for K-12 teacher teams. These educators will participate with community representatives from science centers, planetariums, community colleges, and amateur astronomers: the leaders in science education in their communities. They will be sustained as NASA-affiliated educators through the SOFIA EPO program to communicate the excitement of NASA discoveries and exploration in their region. These teams will come across the Nation, connecting NASA's cutting-edge research programs to communities large and small in every state.
SOFIA promises excellent scientific productivity at a fraction of the cost of going to space (1990 and 2000 Decadal Surveys of the National Academy of Sciences). SOFIA will engage and train undergraduate and graduate students in science, technology, engineering and mathematics careers. SOFIA will contribute to the improvement of K-12 mathematics and science teacher quality, and inspire students to pursue STEM careers.
In a few months, SOFIA will be ready to take its first engineering test flights, and commence making significant contributions to America's scientific and educational achievements. SOFIA is an asset for America.
Considering the U. S. and German investment of approximately $600 million in SOFIA as well as the scientific and educational promise of this observatory, it makes no sense to cancel this NASA Mission.
Note on the author: Edna DeVore is the Director of Education and Public Outreach at the SETI Institute. Together, the SETI Institute and the Astronomical Society of the Pacific lead the SOFIA Education and Public Outreach program for USRA and NASA.