NASA OIG: SOFIA: NASA's Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy


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We found that despite substantial delays in reaching operational capacity, SOFIA remains capable of contributing to the scientific body of knowledge and many in the science community view the observatory as a valuable resource. However, we understand that the SOFIA Program is competing for limited resources and policymakers will have to decide whether other NASA projects are a higher scientific and budgetary priority. If the decision is made to continue the Program, we identified several challenges SOFIA will face going forward. For example, NASA needs to ensure a consistent infusion of new technology, revise the methodology for calculating researcher funding, and re-evaluate the number of research hours SOFIA can fly per year. In addition, we identified organizational and contractual issues that may make it difficult for the SOFIA Program to ensure adequate oversight of its contractor and achieve cost efficiencies. These issues are valid whether SOFIA continues to operate for the next 20 years or is stored and later reactivated.

SOFIA Managers Need to Address Several Issues to Ensure the Best Possible Return on Investment. Based on our analysis of SOFIA information and interviews with Program managers and the research community, we found that 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, we identified seven issues that could potentially reduce demand for the observatory and ultimately affect its long-term performance:

- More Frequent Infusion of New Technology. SOFIA's ability to update its technology is one of its unique advantages compared to other observatories, particularly space-based telescopes. This feature provides the observatory with the flexibility to improve its instruments and perform important science throughout its expected 20-year operational life. Accordingly, the Program must ensure frequent technology updates. However, the current funding profile provides for 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.

- Lack of a Formal Outreach Plan to Engage Science Community. The Program does not have a formal plan to manage its scientific outreach efforts, and although it has made efforts to engage the science community, these efforts are ad-hoc and lack a formal mechanism to plan, track, and evaluate outreach activities. A formal outreach plan, similar to those employed by other NASA programs, could help ensure that Program management plans and budgets for a specific amount of outreach each year and monitors its efforts to ensure they are effective and cost efficient.

- Insufficient Funding to Complete Research Projects. SOFIA's methodology for calculating research funding results in awards that are not commensurate with the complexity and uniqueness of the observatory. NASA modeled SOFIA's research funding structure on the model used for the Spitzer Space Telescope Program, and all selected proposals receive funding at the same hourly rate. However, unlike Spitzer, SOFIA observations vary greatly in their complexity. Seven of eight science community members that received funding cited insufficient funding as an issue that may prevent them from completing the work necessary to analyze SOFIA-generated data and publish articles in peer-reviewed journals.

- Lack of Timely Data. The SOFIA Program has not met its schedule for delivering data products to researchers. The Program's latest "Call for Proposals" identifies a timetable for delivery for various levels of data. For example, as of January 2014, about 30 percent of collected data was not delivered to researchers within the prescribed timelines. Significant delays in data delivery could negatively impact the Program by frustrating the research community, delaying researchers from conducting follow-up investigations, and dissuading them from pursuing future observations.

- No Formal Rescheduling Process for Cancelled Observations. Similar to most major observatories, SOFIA has a relatively strict policy of not rescheduling missed observation flights caused by bad weather, aircraft mechanical issues, or other unforeseen circumstances. Nevertheless, the Program was able to reschedule several flights cancelled due to the October 2013 Federal Government shutdown. An ad-hoc team of scientists - assembled and led by the Program's Science Mission Operations Center Director - made the decision regarding which flights to reschedule. While this process provided additional opportunities for some observations, we believe development of a formal process would help avoid the perception of preferential treatment when identifying and rescheduling missed flights.

- Research Flight Hour Requirement May Not Provide Most Efficient Use of the Observatory. In 1996, NASA established what it believed to be an efficient goal for observation time and based SOFIA's development on an annual operational requirement of 960 research flight hours for the observatory's 20-year lifetime.10 Our assessment of the assumptions used to establish this requirement indicated the data is outdated, may no longer reflect the most efficient use of NASA resources, and should be reassessed when establishing operational performance expectations. For example, SOFIA is exceeding both its planned science flight hours per flight and the operational reliability percentage used in the original calculations - strong indications that SOFIA has the potential for completing more than 960 research flight hours per year. In light of SOFIA's annual operating cost of approximately $104,000 per planned research flight hour, NASA should establish an optimal operational requirement for observation time that is balanced between quality of science and other competing priorities - such as technology upgrades and researcher funding - to maximize use of the observatory.

- Periodic Assessments Needed to Assess Cost Efficiency of SOFIA's Science. The SOFIA Program has no formal process to review SOFIA's cost efficiency in terms of science return during its operations phase. Although SOFIA's Program Plan provides for biannual Program Implementation Reviews, these do not address the amount of "good science" the observatory has collected on a per-dollar basis nor do they compare SOFIA to other operating missions. NASA's Senior Review process occurs every two years and uses this metric for missions that have completed their primary mission requirements and are being considered for an extended mission. However, because of SOFIA's unusually long 20-year operational life cycle and relatively high operating costs, we suggest that NASA not wait to perform a "science per dollar" review similar to a Senior Review.

Organizational Structure May Not Provide Adequate Oversight of Mission Critical Functions. In conjunction with SOFIA's transition to its planned 20-year operational phase, NASA intends to reorganize the Program's management structure and, subsequently, its contract with Universities Space Research Association (USRA). However, the planned organizational structure does not provide adequate management and oversight of the Science Mission Operations Center, which is operated by a contractor.Additionally, the current contract does not provide mechanisms to ensure adequate NASA management and oversight of mission critical functions (such as ensuring that a civil servant direct and authorize the contractor's work) as defined by the Office of Federal Procurement Policy. Furthermore, NASA should consider alternatives to the current cost-plus-fixed-fee contract when the USRA contract expires in 2016. Proceeding into the operational phase with an organizational structure and contract type that does not provide management with the proper tools to manage USRA responsibilities may not be the most effective and cost efficient option for the Program going forward.

Uncertainty Surrounding SOFIA's Future Funding has Immediate Ramifications on the Program. The President's FY 2015 budget proposal for NASA would sharply reduce funding for SOFIA and place the observatory in storage unless partners help subsidize NASA's share of the Program's $80 million annual operating costs. In contrast, the full House of Representatives approved $70 million and the Senate Committee on Appropriations proposed $87 million for SOFIA in FY 2015. In this period of uncertainty, the Program must address a series of immediate challenges, including whether and how to plan for a Program shutdown and possible reactivation, how to retain key staff, and whether to move forward with planned research and maintenance activities.

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