History of SOFIA and Airborne Astronomy 1965-2013

This article by Wendy Whiting Dolci from a 1997 issue of the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics' magazine is a history of airborne astronomy platforms starting in the 1920s and continuing to SOFIA's predecessor the Kuiper Airborne Observatory (KAO) that ended service in 1996. Wendy was one of the KAO's on-board Mission Directors and later Assistant Project Manager.

Jump to year:

1965-1969 | 1969 | 1972 | 1974 | 1975-1979 | 1977 | 1980 | 1982 | 1983 | 1984 | 1985 | 1986
1987 | 1988 | 1989 | 1990 | 1991 | 1992 | 1993 | 1994 | 1995 | 1996 | 1997 | 1998 | 1999
2000 | 2001 | 2002 | 2003 | 2004 | 2005 | 2006 | 2007 | 2008 | 2009 | 2010 | 2011 | 2012 | 2013

1965-1969

  • First use of NASA aircraft for infrared (IR) astronomy (Convair CV-990 and Lear Jet)

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1969

  • Planning started for installation of 36-inch telescope in a CV-990; First astronomy community interest in Boeing 747 1971 National Academy of Sciences (NAS) Decade Survey (Greenstein) Report recommended study of Large Airborne Telescope (LAT)

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1972

  • Development well underway on the 36-inch telescope now to be mounted in a Lockheed C-141 platform; Project named the Kuiper Airborne Observatory (KAO); Greenstein report on "Large Stratospheric Telescope" published 

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1974

  • First research flight of KAO; Initial studies on larger system

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1975-1979

  • Planning for LAT continued at low level

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1977

  • Boeing delivered to NASA Ames a study for a LAT in a Boeing 747SP

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1980

  • Concept summary for LAT developed by KAO staff; "Three Meter Telescope on a 747SP Platform" paper presented

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1982

  • International Astronomical Union (IAU) Symposium: IR Astronomy; Invited discussions of KAO and LAT

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1983

  • Success of Infrared Astronomy Satellite (IRAS) shows need for follow-up/exploitation

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1984

  • Ad hoc advocacy group of IR astronomers formed for LAT; Paper on LAT presented; "Stratospheric Observatory For Infrared Astronomy (SOFIA) Preliminary Feasibility Study" report issued in December; Ames/Astronomical Society of the Pacific (ASP) Symposium: Airborne Astronomy (10th KAO Anniversary)

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1985

  • NASA Headquarters allocates FY86 funding for Aircraft Modification Study; Science Consulting Group formed; NASA headquarters (HQ), Ames Research, and Federal Republic of Germany (FRG) representatives meet at HQ and Germans agree to study the development of the Telescope System

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1986

January

  • Ames Research Center (ARC) establishes SOFIA Study Office

 May

  • SOFIA technology workshop at Ames; Informal examination of the SOFIA concept and associated technical issues presented by experts in the related disciplines

May-November

  • Boeing-MAC Phase I Study; Confirms the feasibility of installing a 2.5 meter telescope in a 747SP JULY Ames receives draft of the Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) for Telescope System study Statement of Work (SOW) from Germany

August

  • A presentation of SOFIA is held at NASA Headquarters

October

  • Ames in-house Conceptual System study begins

November

  • Collaborative agreement made with DFVLR (Deutsche Forschungsanstalt fuer Luft und Raumfahrt), the German Aerospace Research Establishment
  • German Phase A Telescope System studies kickoff 

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1987

February

  • Telescope System Phase A Study midterm review at ARC

February-September

  • Boeing-MAC Phase II Study

May

  • German Phase A studies complete

July

  • SOFIA concept review held at ARC

May-August

  • Science Applications International Corporation (SAIC) cost study for Aircraft System

September

  • Ames Conceptual System study finished; SOFIA "Phase A System Concept Description" (The Red Book) published

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1988

 January

  • Small IR Project Concept Review awards SOFIA highest priority, Committee on Space Astronomy (CSAA) and Astrophysics endorses SOFIA

April

  • Phase B Aircraft Proposal review at Boeing Military Airplanes (BMA)

May

  • SOFIA in preliminary Office of Space Science and Applications (OSSA) Research and Analysis FY90 budget for start of development and acquisition of aircraft

June

  • Space and Earth Sciences Advisory Committee (SESAC) recommends that SOFIA proceed into definition phase
  • Rose Engineering under contract to provide wind tunnel test plan and be the principal investigator in defining the SOFIA cavity shear layer control device

August

  • Meetings at Society of Photo-optical Instrumentation Engineers (SPIE) and ARC with FRG (Zeiss) technical experts on technology status, study issues, interfaces, and planning
  • Microcraft begins conceptual design of wind tunnel model at 7% scale
  • Project Readiness Review (PRR) of SOFIA at ARC; Approval to proceed with project definition

September

  • SOFIA zeroed for new start in FY90 budget; Replanning for FY91 development starts
  • Requirements and interfaces documents for definition studies completed and distributed
  • Resource assessment studies completed with Electrospace Systems Inc. (ESI), E-Systems, and The Analytical Sciences Corporation (TASC)

October

  • Phase B (Definition Study) kickoff meeting for German Telescope Assembly at Zeiss completed
  • Data System definition study kickoff at ARC by Code EES
  • Ames project coordination meeting completed with DFVLR in Cologne
  • Preliminary Design Review of wind tunnel model completed
  • BMFT (Bundesministerium fuer Forschung und Technologie), the German Ministry of Science and Technology, issued authority to proceed with Phase B definition studies for Telescope System

November

  • Project Readiness Review of Telescope System completed at Zeiss
  • Interface definition meeting between three German telescope contractors, BMA, and Ames completed at Zeiss

December

  • Astrophysics division/BMFT workshop completed at NASA Headquarters

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1989

January

  • Telescope diameter fixed at 2.5 meters by NASA HQ/DFVLR agreement

February

  • Wind tunnel model design complete and fabrication begins

May

  • Headquarters establishes Science Working Group (SWG) as follow- on to SOFIA Science Consulting Group
  • Recommendation to proceed with development from Space Science and Applications Advisory Committee (SSAAC)
  • Project Definition Review completed at ARC; Found SOFIA well planned and defined and approved the project to proceed into the development phase contingent on a successful completion of wind tunnel test

June

  • Draft MOU for development and operations phases reviewed by Ames, headquarters (Code S, X, and G), SWG, and the German Aerospace Research Establishment (DLR), formerly DFVLRFabrication of wind tunnel model completed by Microcraft; Model air-freighted to Ames. However, SOFIA wind tunnel test start delayed to allow completion of incumbent test

July

  • Non-Advocate Cost Review successfully completed at ARC with NASA Headquarters participation; Affirmation of project readiness for 1991 start; FRG listed as responsible for telescope assembly
  • 14 ft wind tunnel breaks down: cracked turning vanes, SOFIA test start delayed further
  • Definition studies completed by NASA and BMFT; Phase B complete

September

  • Telescope and Aircraft System Phase B final reviews are completed and reports published

October

  • Boeing re-organizes; No longer interested in "one-off" mods like SOFIA

November

  • Berlin wall falls; Reunification of East and West Germany considered

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1990

March

  • SOFIA wind tunnel model tests start

April

  • Shear layer control device is developed for wind tunnel model

May

  • German Space Agency, DARA (Deutsche Agentur fuer Raumfahartangelegenheiten) budget cuts begin

June

  • Non-Advocate Review is held for SOFIA in accordance with the agency's new start-gate policy; SOFIA deemed ready to proceed to development again and recommended for 1992 start
  • Preliminary engineering study of SOFIA Ground Support Facility at new site underway
  • Aircraft System modification procurement activities underway, Source Evaluation Board (S.E.B.) established

July

  • Wind tunnel tests successfully completed; A low drag passive shear layer control device derived, that exceeds performance expectations
  • Redefining of cavity door begins, to incorporate wind tunnel test results
  • In-house studies of Telescope Sub-Systems begin

October

  • Consoles and Electronics System (CES) mock-ups evaluated
  • Reunification of Germany, requiring reduction of German government agencies' budgets

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1991

January

  • NAS Decade Survey (Bahcall committee) Report recommends SOFIA as the top priority moderate new mission for NASA

March

  • DARA's budget uncertain
  • Second wind tunnel entry planned for January 1992 to refine door design trade space

April

  • Development on three cavity door configurations for the wind tunnel model underway at ARC

May

  • With the realization of possible DARA budget cuts, SOFIA plans for FY92 start with an all U.S. program, with optional help from DARA in FY94 MAY Aircraft Modification Contractors road trip: Find out what companies have interest/capability to perform the SOFIA aircraft modification

June

  • Cavity Cooling System in-house study report finished

July

  • In-house descope studies begin, to try to reduce total SOFIA cost; 5 cases considered: 1 thru 4 are telescope cost reduction options/case 5 considers an aft cavity location to reduce aircraft modification costs

September

  • NASA Research Announcement (NRA) planned as procurement method to fund multiple studies with U.S. contractors to develop a U.S. option for the telescope
  • Descope studies completed; Only case 5, reducing the aircraft modification cost by about 40%, which in turn reduces the total cost of the project by 12%, appears to be viable approach, since the science impact is moderate
  • Planned January 1992 wind tunnel test indefinitely postponed because of new, aft configuration selected for further study
  • NRA planned for two aircraft studies to confirm the feasibility and in-house estimate of savings for aft installation

October

  • Computational Fluid Dynamics (CFD) studies on aft cavity are initiated
  • NRA released for Telescope System studies
  • Aft installation studies begin to analyze background IR noise caused by engine exhaust plume
  • Aft cavity location adopted as new baseline for the Aircraft System, pending study results

December

  • NRA released for Aircraft System study

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1992

January

  • IR measurements made of the Shuttle Carrier Aircraft (SCA) engine plumes using IR cameras mounted in Lear jet

March

  • Kickoff meetings for Telescope NRA studies (Lockheed Missiles & Space Company (LMSC), Hughes, Kaman)

April

  • Kickoff meetings for Aircraft NRA studies (E-Systems and Lockheed Aircraft Services, Ontario)

August

  • Second flight test on IR plume noise is made with cameras mounted inside SCA

September

  • Further options investigated to reduce total project costs, including initiation of in-house approach study

November

  • Plume study completed; aft installation feasibility verified and baseline change confirmed

December

  • Final reports of Aircraft System NRA submitted; Results concur with Ames in-house study regarding feasibility and cost savings for the aft cavity configuration
  • Feasibility of modifying existing SOFIA wind tunnel model for an aft cavity investigated
  • In-house implementation plan study fully underway; telescope, consoles + electronics, part of aircraft mod brought in-house to ARC

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1993

January-April

  • Briefings held for various center management review panels on new SOFIA implementation plan, with FY94 "in-house" option proposed APRIL Efforts under way to prepare for aft configuration wind tunnel test

April

  • In-house approach approved by Office of Space Sciences (OSS) at Headquarters, by ARC New Business Filter Committee, and by SOFIA In-house Implementation Plan review committee
  • Headquarters Code C funding augmentation executed for technology development work

June

  • ARC Code R agrees to de-mothball 14 ft wind tunnel for SOFIA test; Test entry planned for 1994
  • CFD model on full -SP finalized for first test run
  • Began locating a section 46 of a Boeing 747
  • "Pro-Engineer" selected as Project and Code E computer-aided design (CAD) package

August

  • Headquarters OSS proposes recycling SOFIA as an FY95 new start to Administration/Comptroller

October

  • German Space Agency indicates willingness to participate in SOFIA with an FY96 start

November

  • NASA redirects planning for an FY96 start with DARA participating

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1994

January-December

  • NASA and DARA continuing to work together in attempts to get SOFIA moving forward on both sides of the Atlantic; Science Working Groups in Germany and in the US busy advocating SOFIA

August

  • SOFIA II wind tunnel test for aft configuration completed

September-December

  • DARA Phase B1 Studies performed by two German teams

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1995

February

  • SOFIA III wind tunnel test completed

March

  • Non-Advocate Review held at ARC; Industry Briefing on SOFIA Privatization held at ARC

May

  • Interface meeting with DARA and German teams held at ARC

July

  • DARA Interim Phase B Study contracts completed by two teams: MAN/K-T and Zeiss/Dornier

September

  • Science Symposium in Switzerland discusses SOFIA

October

  • Stand-down of KAO; "Live from the Stratosphere" last flight; Boeing 747SP course given at ARC by United Airlines

November

  • SOFIA IV wind tunnel test completed; SOFIA Industry Workshop held in Sunnyvale, CA

November-December

  • NASA and DARA both working on their respective RFP drafts

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1996

January

  • ARC gets new Center Director

March

  • SOFIA Project Management gives briefing to NASA HQ Programs Management Council.; ARC Space Projects Review Board given SOFIA presentation

April

  • U.S. SOFIA RFP released

June-July

  • NASA DARA management interface meetings held in Germany and in the U.S.; Proposals received from U.S. industry teams

August

  • DARA receives proposals for TA

October

  • DARA and DLR merger begins

November

  • DARA down-selects SOFIA TA Contractor team. MAN/K-T/MAN consortium awarded fixed priced contract for development of TA

December

  • USRA team awarded SOFIA contract for aircraft purchase, modification, and system integration

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1997

April

  • SOFIA dedication ceremony held at NASA Ames
  • Call for Proposals goes out to the observing community
  • First Light Instruments selected
  • US Peer Review of First Light Instrument proposals
  • Telescope Readiness Review completed
  • SOFIA (Readiness Review) (SRR) completed
  • SOFIA website released

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1998

  • SOFIA PDR completed
  • Design efforts under way for modified aircraft structures and subsystems
  • Conceptual Design Reviews for ARIES, HAWC, FORCAST, FLITECAM, HIPO, FIFI-LS, GREAT, EXES, CASIMiR
  • Data Archive and Data Cycle Group formed
  • Ames Work Products development begins (Water Vapor Monitor, Flight Scheduler)
  • Airplane cavity Environment Control System (ECS) designed
  • Rerouting of air, etc. within aircraft
  • Designed observatory Power Distribution System
  • Design work on the LOPA (floor plan) begins
  • Air Worthiness Manual preparations begin
  • Instrument Rotator designed

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1999

  • Four calibrated test flights with maneuvers give confidence to flight stability load distribution, and pressure responses
  • Design efforts continue for modified aircraft structures and subsystems
  • Telescope Assembly Incremental Design Reviews begin
  • Telescope Assembly Mock-up installed
  • Mission Control System Build 1 completed
  • Mirror-coating contract awarded
  • Hanger N211 extensively modified — demolition and steel fabrication, roof
  • Airplane water, oxygen, air conditioning systems modified
  • Internal shoring installed on aircraft from mock-up Section 46
  • Telescope Assemble CDRs begin
  • Science Observing Scenarios working group meets
  • Final design of observatory Layout of Personnel Accomodations (LOPA) submitted
  • Aircraft Mass Simulator designed
  • Liquid nitrogen injection system designed
  • EPO airborne astronomy presentations in Idaho, Michigan, California

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2000

  • SOFIA CDR successfully completed
  • Incremental telescope CDRs completed
  • Telescope cradle completed
  • Completion of Software Final Design Review
  • Incremental Integration of USRA/DARA telescope software in Munich
  • First cut of airplane cavity skin
  • Forward bulkhead floor assembly completed
  • Cavity aft bulkhead installed
  • Aircraft stringer and reinforcements installed
  • Cavity sill beams modified
  • Galley CDR completed
  • Aircraft ceiling raised for telescope assembly
  • MCS Build 2 completed
  • Conceptual Design Review for SAFIRE completed
  • Data Cycle Core System demonstrated at Rochester Institute Of Technology
  • FORCAST and FLITECAM CDRs completed
  • Flight Scheduler Preliminary Design Review (PDR) completed
  • EPO presents IR Airborne Teacher's Workshop in Phoenix
  • SIRTF/SIM/Astrobiology EPO collaboration launched
  • Science Observing Scenarios briefed to Steering Committee
  • First metal (structural member) cut on aircraft
  • Telescope assembly CDRs completed
  • SOFIA "4 Minute Features" to be shown on United Airlines in-flight News videos

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2001

  • AIRES instrument cancelled
  • Mounting of skins on aircraft proceeding
  • HAWC Critical Design Review (CDR) completed

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2002

  • All skins mounted on aircraft
  • Modified aircraft structure completed
  • Cavity Bulkheads completed
  • All components of Cavity Door in fabrication
  • CDR of Data Archive System successfully completed
  • Mirror Coating facility in SSMOC tested and working
  • FLITECAM (SOFIA Science Instrument) has successful "first light" at Lick Observatory
  • Telescope arrived in Waco from Germany

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2003

  • SOFIA Telescope Floats!
  • TA activated for course drive movements
  • Science Instrument Mounting Flange and TA Balancing Assembly mounted to Suspension Assembly
  • Secondary Mirror and Spider Vanes attached to Metering Structure
  • TA Metering Structure installed in aircraft
  • Telescope Suspension Assembly installed in aircraft
  • Aircraft downjacked onto landing gear

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2004

April

June

August

September-November

  • Three external reviews: Independent Science & Operations Review (ISOR), budget/management review (ICSMR), Independent Aircraft Operations Panel (IAOP)

December

  • Installation of Upper Rigid Door

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2005

January

  • Installation of Upper Rigid Door

February

  • Landing Gear Checked

April-May

  • Installation of Lower Flex Door and Aperture Assembly

(On-Going)

  • Fuel tanks Checked

July

  • FORCAST Instrument tested at Palomar

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2006

August

  • NASA PMC (Program Management Council) chooses Dryden Flight Research Center to complete systems installation and integration and conduct flight tests of the flying observatory; SOFIA Program Office responsibility relocated to DFRC. Under new Program structure DFRC has responsibility for the "Platform Project" (e.g., the aircraft), and ARC has responsibility for "Science Project".

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2007

April

  • SOFIA Completes First Flight in Waco, TX

May

  • SOFIA’s 747 flown to Dryden Flight Research Center, at Edward AFB in California for systems installation and integration and additional flight testing
  • SOFIA Re-Dedicated as "Clipper Lindbergh" at Dryden Flight Research Center

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2008

January

  • SOFIA Visits Ames Research Center on the way to its permanent home at the SOFIA Operations Center, located at the Dryden Aircraft Operations Facility (DAOF) in Palmdale, CA

March

  • SOFIA Line Operations conducted in Palmdale, CA at the Dryden Aircraft Operations Facility. A team of scientists, engineers, and staff from ARC, DFRC, USRA, DSI, DLR, and MAN collaborated on a series of tests of the SOFIA telescope assembly and software

April

  • Telescope Primary Mirror removed in preparation for coating

June

  • Primary Mirror coated for first time at NASA Ames Research Center

October

  • Primary Mirror reinstalled into SOFIA

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2009

June

December

  • SOFIA achieves first 100-percent open door test flight

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2010

February

  • The Faint Object InfraRed Camera for the SOFIA Telescope, or FORCAST, instrument is delivered to the NASA Dryden Aircraft Operations Facility (DAOF) in Palmdale, CA

May

November

  • SOFIA begins "Short Science" observing phase with FORCAST and the German REceiver for Astronomy at Terahertz Frequencies, or GREAT. (GREAT's flights began in April 2011.) First science flight flown on November 30, 2010, with FORCAST on the telescope.

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2011

January

April

June

September

November

December

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2012

January

March

April

August

October

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2013

April

July

November

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