SOFIA… a success story in jeopardy
[Translated from the German original on 19 March 2014]
Since 2007, a converted Boeing 747 SP has been flying to look into the depths of space through an on-board telescope. This airborne observatory is a joint venture between the US space agency NASA and the German Aerospace Center (Deutsches Zentrum für Luft- und Raumfahrt; DLR). As part of the current budget statement for NASA, it was announced from Washington that it would not be possible to finance continued operations as of 2015. This would not only be a major blow for the scientists that have planned a great deal of interesting astronomical research for the coming years, but also for the relationship between NASA and DLR.
In 1996, NASA and DLR decided to start the joint project SOFIA (Stratospheric Observatory For Infrared Astronomy). Their idea was to reconstruct a short version of a jumbo jet to serve this purpose. In 2006, once the work had begun, the US suddenly called for a stop. It was only after a very strong intervention from Germany, made by my predecessor as Chairman of the DLR Executive Board, Sigmar Wittig, that the project was continued, with the maiden flight taking place in 2007. Since 2010, research flights take place regularly. The aircraft is used – in addition to its function as an airborne observatory – for training purposes. Its special design also enables the use of various different scientific instruments, depending on the observational task at hand. Germany has funded a 20 percent share of the operating costs as part of its National Space Programme.
So far so good. But about a week ago, I suddenly received news that NASA could no longer finance their part of the project for budgetary reasons. The official announcement came a few days later. Since then, there has been a great deal of communication regarding ways to allow a continuation. With all due respect for financial constraints, partnerships are crucially affected when bilateral, joint projects are suddenly questioned 'overnight' – in the manner we have already experienced with the X38 spaceplane project and the ESA ExoMars project. With this announcement regarding SOFIA, a scientific programme is threatened with far-reaching implications. We are therefore looking very intensively for solutions. In discussions with our US partners, different options have been proposed. So far, we have always 'played our part' in compliance with the requirements of joint projects, and deficits have been balanced in individual cases over a limited period, for example, with the International Space Station. If solidarity and reliability come strongly into question between partners, it may become necessary to redefine the German position. As I have said before, I see great value in international cooperation, but this must also be characterised by exceptional dependability.
SOFIA during its first test flight with a completely open telescope door on 18 December 2009 over the Mojave Desert in California. Credit: NASA / C. Thomas.
Top image: SOFIA at Christchurch Airport, New Zealand, in August 2013. Credit: NASA / C. Thomas.