Teachers in the William S. Hart Union High School District served as NASA Airborne Astronomy Ambassadors this week, which allowed them the chance to interact with scientific experts, board a NASA plane and launch into the stratosphere where they enjoyed all of the sights that the galaxy has to offer.
Nearly two years after they originally applied for the program, the six educators — Nick Gravel, Maya Loch, Christopher Spann, Matt Stanich and Julie Huffman — arrived in Palmdale Sunday night for dinner, where they received the NASA blue bomber jackets that they’d wear throughout their trip.
“It’s amazing,” Stanich said as he described the program. “I didn’t really know what to expect, but everything about the trip has been bigger than life. Seeing all of the action has been really special.”
While participating in the ambassador program, the teachers stayed at the NASA research facility in Palmdale for the week and flew on two missions that lasted 10 to 12 hours each.
The teachers also participated in tours of the NASA Neil A. Armstrong Flight Research Center and Edwards Air Force Base, where they visited mission control and hangars that housed F-15s, NASA planes and other experimental aircraft, Stanich said.
Stanich, who teaches physics at West Ranch High School, also spotted some equipment that his father installed on an observatory that served as the predecessor to the one that he flew in Wednesday, “so it’s like the next generation continues,” he said.
During the missions, the teachers joined various science, space and aeronautics specialists aboard the Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy, or SOFIA — a Boeing 747 that was modified by NASA and the German Aerospace Center (DLR) to handle the rigors of the stratosphere and carry a 17-ton telescope.
SOFIA is known as the world’s largest airborne observatory and flies at altitudes between 39,000 and 45,000 feet, which is above 99 percent of the water vapor that’s present in the atmosphere.
“In terms of astronomy, we cover a wavelength space that isn’t covered by anybody else,” said Naru Sadakuni, one of the two mission directors aboard Wednesday’s mission.
“Infrared science is very difficult to do from the ground,” said instrument scientist Samuel Richards.
“Because of the water vapor in the atmosphere you can’t see the targets from the ground so you can send a satellite or use SOFIA,” which is more flexible because different instruments can be placed aboard the aircraft and technicians can make repairs, Sadakuni said
“Astronomy is very fast-paced science right now,” which is why Sofia is a great platform, Richards said. “It’s very adaptive and gives you very close to space-grade quality data.”
“I think it’s important for astronomy because there’s a lot of unexplored science that’s being uncovered because of SOFIA,” Sadakuni added.
Assisted by the various instruments and scientists it carries, SOFIA has helped confirm many observations over the course of its lifetime.
This week’s flights were the first in a series that will attempt to piece together the origin story of how water has moved and come together to form planets, including those in the habitable zone, Richards said. “This can help us understand how water came to Earth and why we have so much of it.”
As the 30 crew members aboard the plane analyzed the incoming data and ensured their massive telescope remained in line with the targeted remnants of supernovas and red giants that are light years away, the Hart District educators had the opportunity to conduct experiments, investigate different parts of the plane and interact with crew members.
Nadine Fischer, a software engineer with the DLR, took time during the flight to explain the engineering marvels that are on display inside of SOFIA.
“Try to drive 70 mph on the freeway and point a laser on a coin that’s 8 miles away,” Fischer said. “That’s how accurate the telescope is while we’re in flight.”
With the plane flying around 39,000 feet in the air, Fischer returned to her workstation and the SOFIA continued to soar while the world below slept.
As some teachers continued to interact with their fellow crew members, others took in a view that only a select few have witnessed in their lifetimes.
With jackets held over their heads and faces pressed to the plane’s windows, the group was able to see the millions of stars that glistened above and dwarfed the lights that illuminated from the towns below.
Shortly before SOFIA began its voyage back to Palmdale, the educators were treated to an aurora of lights that glistened faintly across the pitch black sky.
Huffman described it as a perfect night.
After more than 10 hours of flight, SOFIA descended 45,000 feet back to Earth, where mechanics, technicians and specialists rushed on board to gather the data and prepare for the next flight, which would occur almost 12 hours later.
When the teachers return to their classrooms, they will have about two weeks’ worth of curriculum to share with their students, said Pamela Harman, a manager of education and outreach. “It’s really rich and there’s a lot to teach,” because it covers infrared astronomy, wavelengths, the electromagnetic spectrum and polarity.
Teachers will also be given materials, such as infrared cameras, that will allow students to interact with the concepts that are being taught.
“A lot of Next Generation Science Standards curriculum requires teachers to integrate different sciences and this is a good opportunity to do so,” Huffman said, especially since the materials that were given can be used to teach different astronomy-related topics.
While the students will certainly benefit from the curriculum aspect of the program, Huffman said, they will also benefit from the time educators spent interacting with the NASA professionals.
Discussing scholastic and career opportunities with the mechanics, scientists, telescope operators and pilots is invaluable, Huffman said. “You’ll find that you don’t have to have a PhD to be in the program,” which is often what everybody believes.
“We can take back our experiences here in pictures and videos and share them with our students, get them excited about what’s going on at NASA and let them know that if they’re interested in this kind of work then they can find a way here, because there’s so many different ways to get involved,” Stanich said. “Science requires teamwork and for people to work selflessly towards this big goal that’s been established,” so it was exciting to see everybody working in their role and witness the teamwork it takes to pull a mission like this off.
“Working with NASA scientists to see far out into our universe and collect evidence is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity that we can’t wait to bring back to our students and community,” Huffman added.