A sparkling, heavily modified
And she can cover 6,900 nautical miles on one flight.
Our prime target for observation was the Galactic Center, the rotational core of our
To do this we were scheduled to follow a carefully plotted flight path taking us north to
We received our security badges at midday Tuesday at the storied Air Force Plant 42 and met up with
"Pardon me if I seem fried," he said with a smile.
Veronico had returned to
Our first glimpse of
"It's about a two-car-garage-door-size hole," he pointed out. "And the door opens up and over
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
The fame aviator's grandson,
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
"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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