News Column

NASA's SOFIA lets teachers see stars just a little closer

April 24, 2014

By Gregory J. Wilcox, Daily News, Los Angeles



April 24--PALMDALE -- SOFIA is big, beautiful and voluptuous.

A sparkling, heavily modified NASA 747SP painted gleaming white with red, blue and black accents, she also carries a heavy workload, both figuratively and literally.

Her official NASA moniker is Stratospheric Observatory For Infrared Astronomy. She flies about two times a week and carries a 39,000-pound, 100-inch diameter infrared telescope system nestled in her tail that has unlocked some mysteries of the universe and confirmed others.

And she can cover 6,900 nautical miles on one flight.

NASA authorized a Los Angeles News Group reporter and photographer to accompany two teachers from the Palmdale Aerospace Academy and a team of researchers on a SOFIA flight scheduled to depart Wednesday night.

Our prime target for observation was the Galactic Center, the rotational core of our Milky Way and supermassive black hole creating havoc about 25,000 to 28,000 light years from Earth.

To do this we were scheduled to follow a carefully plotted flight path taking us north to Bismarck, N.D, east over Chicago, south over Atlanta and then west back to Palmdale. There were to be many zigs and zags during the long night. We were to cruise at an altitude of about 41,000 feet -- a few thousand feet higher than typical commercial airliners and above the layer of vapor in the Earth's lower atmosphere.

We received our security badges at midday Tuesday at the storied Air Force Plant 42 and met up with Nicholas A. Veronico, a SOFIA Public Affairs officer assigned to the Ames Research Center in Norther California.

"Pardon me if I seem fried," he said with a smile.

Veronico had returned to Palmdale at 6:30 a.m. after an 11-hour SOFIA flight Monday night into Tuesday morning with academy teachers Dan Molik and Megan Tucker. He spent the day escorting us to a 90-minute session on what to do if something like a catastrophic decompression occurs on the plane and then sitting in on some lab briefings with NASA officials and some of the people on the flight.

Our first glimpse of SOFIA was impressive. While the 747 is huge, it takes up just a small corner of Armstrong Flight Research Center's Building 703. The building is so huge that it held the water tank for the filming of the 1998 movie "Hard Rain."

SOFIA is just as impressive. Veronico pointed out what looks like a small door on the left side of the fuselage.

"It's about a two-car-garage-door-size hole," he pointed out. "And the door opens up and over SOFIA." The opening, it turns out, is 16 feet tall.

The telescope is built on a spherical ball bearing that is coated with 15 microns of special oil. That is about the depth of 15 human hairs stacked on top of one another, Veronico noted, but the equipment keeps the telescope absolutely stable and isolates it from the plane's vibrations.

The telescope is also more accurate than land-based equipment. "It's 80 percent as effective as a spaced-based telescope," he said.

We spotted something else on the fuselage. Just under the captain's window are the words "Clipper Lindbergh."

Turns out that this bird also has a special past. It was originally purchased in 1977 by Pan American Airways, which christened it in honor of Charles Lindbergh.

The fame aviator's grandson, Erik, rededicated NASA's flying laboratory in 2007 on the 80th anniversary of Lindbergh's historic transatlantic flight.

And the inside of the plane, which was being readied for our flight, no longer resembles a commercial aircraft.

"Imagine 232 seats reduced to 26," he said as we climbed the stairs to the cabin. Once inside we turned left and were greeted by a series of workstations that face the tail of the plane -- the massive amount of equipment that transfers data from the scope to on-board computers.

There are first-class seats facing the front of the craft behind a small galley and restroom.

Semi-circular stairs lead to the flight deck and a few more rows of seats. The cockpit has been retrofitted with state-of-the-art instruments, and we are promised flight time in the jump seats behind the crew.

The egress training was not the commercial vanilla variety, either.

We spent more than 90 minutes with Phillip Wellner, a Dryden life support technician, getting an in-depth briefing on all of the safety equipment on the plane, including a 10-minute video on SOFIA's various door slides and escape hatches in the plane's floor behind the front landing gear and the cockpit ropes with wooden handles attached that are used to exit the plane via windows if necessary.

"How many times have these been used?" I asked Wellner.

"Just once," he replied with a chuckle. "By the guy in the video."

But there is also some serious stuff.

We also learned how to don oxygen hoods that resemble cellophane bags with an oxygen bottle inside, how to operate government-issue locator beacons and radios, use oxygen masks and more elaborate breathing systems and the proper way to put on life jackets and use a slide.

Jump, was the basic message. "If you sit down you won't go anywhere and then the people behind you will be jumping on your head," Wellner said.

Then it was back to the plane to see where all the safety gear is located.

And we were required to take a hood -- an emergency personal oxygen supply called EPOS -- every place we went on the plane.

Later in the afternoon we met up with some of the Monday night crew, including teachers Molik and Tucker. Part of their prep for the flight included taking two graduate level courses in astronomy.

Tucker said the added classroom work helped her grasp the essence of what was happening on the flight right away.

"My gosh, it was amazing. I was able to understand so much of what happening much quicker than I anticipated," she said.

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