SOFIA Observatory Debuts at NASA Dryden

SOFIA Observatory Debuts at NASA Dryden
NASA's SOFIA airborne observatory is welcomed during a ceremony at the Dryden Flight Research Center in California. (Image credit: SETI.)

TheStratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy, SOFIA, was officiallywelcomed on June 27, 2007 to NASA?s DrydenFlight Research Facility adjacent to Edwards Air Force Base in southern California?s Mojave Desert.

SOFIA is a Boeing 747SP (specialshort-bodied but long-distance model of the 747), which served as a commercialairliner for Pan Am and then United Airlines. The aircraft now carries a17-ton, 100-inch (2.5-meter) diameter telescope built by the German aerospace agencyDLR and its contractors. The first test flight of the combined aircraft andtelescope assembly happened on April 26 in Waco, Texas, the location of L-3 CommunicationsIntegrated System?s plant where the aircraft modifications were accomplished.Former shuttle astronaut, and Dryden?s chief test pilot, Gordon Fullerton wasin the captain?s seat on that auspicious day for NASA, DLR, and the worldcommunity of astronomers. SOFIA?s fourthtest flight was its ?ferry? flight from Texas to California (see Edna DeVore?s column from June 7).

For SOFIA?s ?debut? celebration, the maindoors of the central hangar at Dryden were opened, with SOFIA on the apron, its nose almostpoking inside. Three hundred seats were ready for the invited guests, mostlycurrent and former SOFIA program personnel, staff fromDryden plus Edwards AFB, and some VIPs including representatives from NASAHeadquarters and Congressional aides representing their bosses who were stillin session in Washington. SOFIA was behind the podium with its white and blue NASA colorsgleaming in the bright desert morning sunshine. (Out of view a few hundredmeters away was the space shuttle orbiter Atlantis, back from space only 5 daysearlier, being processed for its eventual return to Florida.)

Before the SOFIA ceremony, some of the guests filedpast a series of exhibits along the hangar wall. I was staffing a boothrepresenting the Universities Space Research Association (USRA) that hasresponsibility for planning and conducting SOFIA?s scientific mission, and also the SETI Institute that, along with theAstronomical Society of the Pacific, manages SOFIA?s Education & Public Outreach effort. Waving aninfrared camera back and forth, I was showing people on a monitor what they looklike at wavelengths of 8 to 14 microns, in which band room- andhuman-temperature objects emit most of their thermal radiation. The infrared isa great leveler: everyone finds themselves equally unappealing at thosewavelengths, with dark noses, black glasses, dark hair with streaks of warmscalp showing through, and glowing white lips and tongues.

One fellowengaged me in a series of questions about the scientific goals of SOFIA and about its education program. Iexplained that one of the ?sweet spots? for SOFIA scientifically is to study the ?life cycle? of organic molecules ininterstellar space with its set of five powerful spectrometers. SOFIA has the ability, from thestratosphere, to collect far-infrared and sub-millimeter radiation inaccessibleeven from high mountain tops. We know that an enormous amount of organicchemistry happens in the dark clouds from which stars and planets form.?Astrobiologists are pursuing the question of how much of the organic substancesin Earth?s biosphere were home-made, so to speak, or were created in spacebefore the Earth formed and were somehow delivered to Earth?s surface later. SOFIA?s capabilities will make it perfectfor providing data to scientists researching this fascinating topic, among manyothers.

My intensequestioner then asked about SOFIA?seducation program, and I said, ?Well, my plan is to train teams of educators tounderstand the research projects of astronomers and then fly onboard SOFIA with scientist partners, sort oflike junior-varsity teachers in space. I hope to compose teams comprised ofclassroom teachers, science museum docents, and even avid amateur astronomerswith their own outreach programs. The goal would be that, by participating inactual frontier research projects, these educators would go home after theirflights and, with the help of the SOFIA E&PO crew, work together to improvescience and technical education in their communities and inspire theirstudents. Based on the experience of the similarly-designed FOSTER program(conducted during the last few years of SOFIA?s predecessor the Kuiper AirborneObservatory) we also expect that the educators? careers will be invigorated,keeping them in the field and leading them on to become teachers-of-the-year orstate curriculum coordinators, as we found when we tracked down the FOSTERalums 10 years later.?

Finally,wondering who this bright and energetic person might be, I introduced myself,and he, seeming startled, said, ?Oh, I?m Erik Lindbergh?.I stammered and said, ?It?s an honor?. I then pulled out my business card,which he exchanged for his. Erik Lindbergh, grandson of aviator CharlesLindbergh, was at Dryden that morning to re-dedicate the SOFIA aircraft as the Clipper Lindbergh.?2007 is thirty years after Erik?s grandmother, Anne Morrow Lindbergh,originally dedicated the same aircraft into commercial service with that name,which in turn was on the 50th anniversary of Charles Lindbergh?sfirst solo crossing of the Atlantic. Justthen the bell rang for everyone to assemble for the SOFIA ceremony.

There werea series of speeches, mostly short and sweet, by such dignitaries as KevinPeterson and Pete Worden, respectively the directors of Dryden and Ames, the two NASA centers cooperating for flight testsand then operation of SOFIA as a scientific observatory. Thencame Erik Lindbergh?s turn. He spoke extemporaneously and passionately aboutthe crucial necessity for humanity to think outside of our various boxes. Hepointed out the value of prizes for motivating people to accomplish greatthings (Erik is a trustee of the famous X Prize Foundation, and hisgrandfather?s trans-Atlantic flight was substantially motivated by a prizepurse). Finally, Erik praised the adventure represented by SOFIA?s mission, including searching fororganic processes in space, and taking teachers onboard to motivate theteachers and their students (my colleagues in the audience turned to me witheyebrows raised ? where did he get those details from?). It was a sincere andinspiring speech that left those of us on the SOFIA project glowing.? Finally, Erik Lindbergh went up thejetway steps and pulled a cord to remove red-white-and-blue bunting thatcovered the script ?Clipper Lindbergh? behind and below the left-hand cockpitwindows, to the loud applause of all of us assembled there, cheering SOFIA at the commencement of its ownjourneys to the frontiers of human knowledge and achievement.

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