SOFIA Airborne Observatory Passes Technical Review

WASHINGTON-- NASA announced June 15 that a senior review board found no"insurmountable technical or programmatic challenges" to thecompletion of the SOFIA flying astronomy observatory, but pointedly noted thatthe U.S. space agency has not decided whether to stick with the over-budget andbehind-schedule program or cancel it.

TheStratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy (SOFIA), a 747 jetlinerequipped with a German-built infrared telescope, has been on the chopping blocksince the beginning of the year. NASA shocked the astronomy community andannoyed its German partners when it sent Congress a budget request in Februarythat included no money for SOFIA. NASA said at the time that it put SOFIA on hold in order to evaluate the technical challenges standing in the way ofcompleting the observatory and beginning its first science flights.

"We placedthe program on hold last February because of programmatic and technicalissues," NASA Associate Administrator Rex Geveden, the agency'sthird-in-command, said in a June 15 statement. "Since that time, we havethoroughly reviewed the program and now are confident that SOFIA can resolvethose issues. However, it is not yet clear whether SOFIA represents the bestinvestment of space science funding, and we will need to consider fundingoptions and sources before we decide to continue the mission."

Gevedenchairs NASA's Program Management Council, the review board senior NASA managersthat met June 15 at Kennedy Space Center in Florida to take up the SOFIA question. Immediately following the meeting, NASA headquarters issued a pressrelease stating that the Program Management Council "concluded that there wereno insurmountable technical or programmatic challenges to the continueddevelopment" of SOFIA. The release also said that the agency has a "technicallyviable plan" for completing development of the flying observatory provided themoney can be found.

NASA hasspent approximately $500 million on SOFIA since 1996. Prior to putting theprogram on hold, NASA estimated that SOFIA's first science flights would notbegin before 2008.

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