NASA Names Flying SOFIA Observatory 'Clipper Lindbergh'
Erik Lindbergh ceremonially christens NASA's 747 'Clipper Lindbergh' using a special commemorative concoction representing local, NASA and industry partners.
Credit: NASA Photo/Tom Tschida

NASA has dedicated a unique flying astronomical observatory to pioneering aviator Charles Lindbergh on the 80th anniversary of his historic transatlantic flight.

Erik Lindbergh, the pilot's grandson, joined NASA for today?s event, which was held in Waco, Texas.

NASA's new Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy (SOFIA) is a highly modified Boeing 747SP?a shorter-fuselage, 1970s-vintage version of the original 747?that carries a 45,000-pound infrared telescope system.

The original operator of the 747SP, Pan American Airways, first christened it Clipper Lindbergh in 1977. NASA has revived the name to dedicate the flying observatory in Charles Lindbergh?s honor.

The SOFIA aircraft was modified at L-3 Systems in Waco and is wrapping up a series of functional checkout flights before heading to NASA's Dryden Flight Research Center, Edwards Air Force Base, Calif., for further tests and systems integration.

Erik Lindbergh unveiled a plaque commemorating the Clipper Lindbergh dedication. "This project is a fantastic blend of a 20th-century legacy aircraft and a 21st-century platform for exploration," he said.

Intended to fly above 40,000 feet, SOFIA will lift its infrared telescope above nearly 99 percent of the Earth's atmospheric water vapor, greatly enhancing the aerial observatory?s abilities to study the cosmos. Its state-of-the-art telescope will be able to carry out scientific missions with greater flexibility and ease of upgrade than a satellite-borne observatory.

The German Aerospace Center is a partner in the SOFIA project, providing the telescope. NASA modified the aircraft. NASA had L-3 Systems cut a 16-foot-high opening into the 747SP?s aft fuselage to permit observations to be made at altitude.

Once it arrives at Dryden, SOFIA will continue flight and systems testing for about two years while its observatory system hardware and software are integrated with the aircraft. The telescope's first images are expected in 2009.

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