Chinle teachers selected for NASA mission

By Alastair Lee Bitsoi
Navajo Times

WINDOW ROCK, May 30, 2013

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It may have taken more than a year to learn if they would fly in the National Aeronautics and Space Administration's airborne observatory called the SOFIA.

But for Chinle Junior High School science teachers Melvin Gorman and Gordon Serkis, it was worth the wait.

Gorman and Serkis were selected by NASA's Airborne Astronomy Ambassador's Program in January 2012 to ride in the SOFIA, a highly modified Boeing 747SP airliner that has a 2.7-inch diameter telescope about the size of the famous orbiting Hubbell Space Telescope.

SOFIA, or Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy, launches out of Palm Dale, Calif., and is a joint project of NASA and the German Aerospace Center.

The aircraft flies 9 miles-per-minute up to 45,000 feet in the air, according to NASA, to study star births and deaths, and the formation of new solar systems in the universe through infrared technology.

SOFIA also examines complex molecules in space, planets, comets, asteroids in the solar system, nebulae and dust in galaxies and black holes in the center of galaxies, which optical telescopes like Hubbell can't capture.

"It's going to be an opportunity of a lifetime," Serkis said in an interview with the Navajo Times on Wednesday. "To me, this is one of the greatest things that has happened to me."

For Gorman, he sees this as an opportunity to pave the way for a future Navajo astronomer.

"We are doing this for the kids we teach," he said, adding that the whole idea of riding in SOPHIA is being able to study the universe through the infrared telescope.

"You can see the infrared wavelength by riding in the airplane and observe what astronomers are looking at," he said.

Culturally, Gorman said he didn't know if infrared existed in Navajo vocabulary and astronomy, but added that the mission is an opportunity to teach students thirsty for the unknown realms of astronomy.

"Infrared will be a brand new idea for them and hopefully with our training they'll learn more about," Gorman said. "I'm very excited to be part of this mission."

On their June 11 and 13 missions, Gorman and Serkis will have the chance to interact and learn about the type of research scientists from Leiden University in Holland, Northern Arizona University in Flagstaff, Marx Planck Institute in Germany, University of Maryland and Cornell University are conducting.

According to Dan Backman, astrophysicist and director for NASA's Airborne Astronomy Ambassador's Program, three scientists are studying star formations, while one is looking at the star evolution and the other at planet formations.

"The prime goal is for them to understand how scientific research is conducted," Backman said about teachers in the program. "What we really want them to learn is how scientists came up with a project and how astronomers arrange what they do."

"They will find out that science is a lot of blood, sweat and tears," Backman added.

The Chinle science teachers were one team of 13 teacher teams to be selected out of 80 different groups from throughout the nation. They will be flying with a group of teachers from Colorado and Texas on their two 10-hour missions, held throughout night and concluding right before dawn.

With their training on the flight, which also required taking graduate level astronomy classes offered by Montana State University, Gorman and Serkis plan to share their knowledge with the Chinle community, students and schools – a major selling point for NASA officials to select them to be part of the Airborne Astronomy Ambassadors Program.

SOFIA is the successor to the Gerard Kuiper Airborne Observatory, which operated for 20 years from 1975 to 1995. Following the retirement of Kuiper in 1995, astronomers and Congress agreed to fund a larger observatory, Backman said.

"We're early in what's supposed to be a 20-year mission," Backman said, adding that SOFIA is 80 percent owned by the U.S. and 20 percent owned by Germany.

The first scientific operations on SOFIA began in December 2010, and this year is the first time teachers are being allowed to participate on the missions.

"With an infrared telescope, we can see into the center of the Milky Way Galaxy, which Hubbell can't," he added. "It's good at studying star and planet formations."

Following their SOFIA flight, Backman said teachers would continue being in contact with NASA officials and scientists.

"We'll continue and make sure … the teachers stay in contact with the scientists and watch the process of research being written up for publication," he said. "Science is a process and a way of thinking. Showing in the flesh is the way to do it."

CBS News Correspondent Edward Lawrence, along with Navajo Times reporter Alastair L. Bitsoi and photographer Donovan Quintero, are scheduled to be aboard SOFIA as well to provide media coverage of the missions.

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