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Flagstaff's astronomy ambassadors take flight

Flagstaff's astronomy ambassadors take flight

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Lowell Observatory Historian Kevin Schindler got the rare opportunity this month to join Flagstaff educators Samantha Thompson and Rich Krueger on a flight aboard NASA’s Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy, the largest airborne observatory in the world, as part of the space agency’s Airborne Astronomy Ambassadors Program. The following is his first-hand account of that stratospheric mission.

Part two of a two-part series

There’s just something about flying on a NASA mission that is magical.

True, NASA’s Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy encompasses the second part of NASA’s name — aeronautical — rather than the more revered third part — space. The plane doesn’t even come close to space, flying at altitudes up to 45,000 feet. But it’s still a NASA mission, and besides, the thought of traveling on a flying observatory is just plain cool.

So there we were, Lowell Observatory’s Samantha Thompson, Flagstaff Arts & Leadership Academy’s Rich Krueger, 25 other people and me on the evening of Aug. 31, wondering if our flight the following evening was a go or no-go. We finally got word that a troublesome engine had been repaired and was now working properly.

The flight was on.

The next day, our Flagstaff contingency gathered in the afternoon with educators from Oklahoma and shopped for food to take on that evening’s 10-hour flight. We then headed to NASA’s Armstrong Flight Research Center and saw SOFIA rolled out onto the apron as crews prepared the plane for its journey.

We stashed our gear in a room at SOFIA’s hangar and walked upstairs to meet with SOFIA Program Manager Eddie Zavala. He made an observation about SOFIA’s infrared telescope, which NASA scientists can use to study the composition of things like planetary atmospheres, comets and interstellar dust clouds in other galaxies.

“The Hubble Telescope shows the crime scene while SOFIA does the DNA analysis,” Zavala said.

After leaving Zavala’s office, we sauntered toward a meeting room for the mission briefing. Flight Director Nancy McKown asked officials for status reports on topics ranging from the weather and flight plan to the telescope and contingency plan for an emergency landing. When the briefing ended, we gathered our gear and headed out to the plane, the setting sun’s orange rays spotlighting it on the apron. Doors were scheduled to close at 7:40 p.m. and takeoff was set for 8:37 p.m.

But alas, another glitch. The engine was fine, but a light on the left wing was out and needed to be repaired.

Though the scientists would lose out on some valuable observing time, the delay didn’t much dampen the spirits of the passengers. The educators could still pick the brains of the scientists and engineers even though the plane was still on the ground.

I reflected on the audacity of airborne astronomy and the legacy of Lowell’s Ted Dunham, considered in science circles as one of the godfathers of airborne astronomy. Ted wasn’t on this flight, but his presence was certainly felt. His name came up in several conversations and people would whisper his name almost reverentially.

At 9:27 p.m., word came that the light on the wing was working again and we were cleared for flight. After a final safety briefing, we all buckled in to our seats and the plane began taxiing, finally taking off at 10:06 p.m.

Now the real fun began.

Once the plane reached cruising altitude, passengers could walk around the cabin. We could even head up to the flight deck to visit with the two pilots and the engineer who kept the plane on a course over many of the far western states, Canada and the Pacific Ocean.

The main deck consisted of two primary areas. The fore section contained passenger seats and a bank of computers. It was separated from the main work area of the aft section by two small bathrooms and a 14-stepped spiral staircase that corkscrewed up to the flight deck.

The primary work area on the main deck contained several work stations, all pointed to the rear of the plane. From the midsection to the back, these stations included monitors for the educators and work tables, a station for the flight director and assistant, and stations for the instrument scientists and telescope operators.

At the far end was the star of the show, the 100-inch-diameter infrared telescope, which remained cordoned off for the duration of the flight. The scientists used this telescope in conjunction with the EXES — Echelon-Cross-Echelle Spectrograph — a specialized, liquid helium-cooled instrument. They observed a variety of molecular clouds and star-forming regions in the infrared spectrum.

While the scientists didn’t experience their best night of observing, Thompson, Krueger, and the other educators gained a rich understanding of the observatory and its capabilities. Thompson and Krueger, with the help of Krueger’s students, will use what they learned to create exhibits that will be displayed at Lowell Observatory, FALA and other venues.

Not bad for an observing mission that almost didn’t happen.

Kevin Schindler is the Lowell Observatory historian.


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NASA’s Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy — SOFIA, for short  — is the largest airborne observatory in the world. Earlier this m…

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