Between Wednesday night and Thursday morning, NASA conducted the final flight of the Boeing 747-SP with a reflecting telescope for the Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy (SOFIA). This flight marked the end of an era, and now the question is what will happen to this iconic aircraft. Simple Flying spoke to Paul Hertz, senior adviser to NASA’s Science Mission Directorate, former director of the Astrophysics Division and former SOFIA program scientist. He told us that.
What does the future hold for SOFIA?
In 1997, NASA acquired a Boeing 747SP that had previously flown commercial flights with Pan Am (1977-1986) and United Airlines (1986-1997). Then NASA and the German Space Agency heavily modified the aircraft so that it could carry a 2.7 meter long and 20 ton telescope to observe the infrared universe with a unique scientific mission.
SOFIA operated between 2010 and 2022 and reached full capacity in 2014. It quickly became an average favorite, drawing crowds everywhere because that’s what happens with a unique aircraft (we have the same thing with the Antonov An-225 or one of the Airbus Belugas, for example).
According to Paul Hertz, now that SOFIA has reached the end of its active history, NASA must follow a standard process established by the US government for the disposal of equipment that is no longer needed.
What will happen to this legendary Boeing 747SP? Photo: NASA.
Museum or another US agency?
The Government Services Administration (GSA, the agency that manages federal property and offers contract options to other agencies) has already called on any organization interested in taking the plane. Other government agencies are getting first dibs, Hertz added.
“We don’t anticipate there being any other government agencies (interested in the plane) and then it goes into the private sector. We assume that one or more aviation museums will express an interest. Once we have all of these expressions of interest, a standard process will go through to decide how we will use the observatory.”
SOFIA wouldn’t be the only artifact ending up in a museum. Hertz added that NASA anticipates other artifacts from the program already being divested could end up in multiple museums.
Now the question is, to which museum could the 747 be sent? Could it be the National Air and Space Museum in Washington, the Space Center Houston, the National Museum of the United States Air Force in Dayton, or maybe another one in the US? We’ll have to wait.
SOFIA could end up in a museum. Photo: NASA
What did SOFIA do?
The SOFIA mission helped scientists observe the infrared universe and monitor events such as the formation of new stars and solar systems. As Paul Hertz explained, SOFIA offered scientists some of the best insights into star-forming regions. It also showed us how material accumulates to form brand new stars and the role magnetic fields play in these processes.
SOFIA also observed water on the moon’s sunlit side, an exciting discovery that will be confirmed when humans return to the moon. Finally, SOFIA provided maps of some active galaxies with supermassive black holes inside.
“SOFIA was a very successful mission. It operated in full operational science mode for over eight years and achieved some significant scientific results. SOFIA is a wonderful achievement by a huge team of people. First and foremost the engineers who figured out how to mount a 20-ton telescope on a Boeing 747, how to create an aperture through which we can observe the universe, and how to ensure that when we’re flying at hundreds of miles per hour, the air flowing over the opening was so smooth that we were able to take fabulous astronomical pictures.
Which museum would you like to see SOFIA in? Would you give the legendary plane a different purpose? Let us know in the comments below.
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