Chinle science teachers guests on NASA flight

By Alastair Lee Bitsoi
Navajo Times

PALMDALE, Calif., June 20, 2013

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(Times photo – Donovan Quintero)

TOP: Chinle Junior High School science teachers Melvin Gorman and Gordon Serkis make their way to the NASA plane called the Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy, better known as SOPHIA, on June 13 in Palmdale, Calif., as part of the NASA Airborne Astronomy Ambassador's Program.

SECOND FROM TOP: Chinle Junior High science teachers Melvin Gorman, foreground, and Gordon Serkis, monitor the computer screens on board NASA's Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy plane June 13. Gorman and Serkis were part of the NASA Airborne Astronomy Ambassador's Program.

THIRD FROM TOP: Pilots for NASA's Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy plane begin making a left turn as the return back to Palmdale, Calif. after some discovering mechanical issues on the plane June 13.

T wo Chinle Junior High science teachers now have a better sense of the universe.

Melvin Gorman and Gordon Serkis were selected from among a competitive pool of applicants to participate on research flights last week on the Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy under NASA's Airborne Astronomy Ambassadors Program.

Gorman and Serkis flew on the SOFIA alongside teachers Adriana Alvarez and Mariela Munoz, who teach at the Alicia R. Chacon International School in El Paso, Texas.

The SOFIA, developed by German scientists, is a Boeing 747SP aircraft equipped with a 100-inch, or 2.5-meter, diameter telescope. It is a joint program between NASA and the German Aerospace Center and is the Earth's only airborne observatory. SOFIA is managed out of the Dryden Aircraft Operations Facility in Palmdale, Calif., where it is based.

"It's been a wonderful experience that not many people get to experience," Serkis said while he and Gorman were sitting in the observatory ready to examine the infrared images of the stars they would have studied on June 13.

Prior to liftoff, they were tasked by NASA officials to transcribe a weird-science formula from a sheet of paper onto their computer monitors for the data collectors and scientists, who were surprisingly mostly engineers, to reference during their data collecting on the commissioned flight.

"All we're going to do is write up what the boxes mean," Gorman said nonchalantly. "We got to make sense of our data."

The teachers are part of a cohort of 26 educators selected nationwide for the professional development program, aimed at providing them the opportunity to understand astronomy and teach that science from their first-hand experience aboard the SOFIA.

"Not only is it a great experience for us, but the bigger thing is our experience and what we share at home with the students and community," Gorman said.

The 7th-grade science teacher plans to teach his students - during the wintertime for respect of Navajo cultural beliefs - about infrared radiation by hooking a photometer solar cell to an amplified sound system. This will demonstrate the difference between the different spectra - visible and infrared - through sound.

Through their participation on the SOFIA research flights, the teachers will continue working with Cornell University engineer George E. Gull, a "toymaker" whose instrument, the "FORCAST," was commissioned by NASA officials for scientific observations after the June 13 mission flight.

The FORCAST, or Faint Object InfraRed Camera for the SOFIA Telescope, is one of seven infrared instruments that NASA officials and scientists use to examine the universe - mostly dust clouds and star births in galaxies.

The instrument has two cameras - a short-infrared - camera that measures from 5 to 25 micrometers and a long-infrared-wavelength camera that operates from 25 to 40 micrometers.

A micrometer is a unit of measurement for wavelengths of infrared radiation, which is beyond the light or color wavelength radiation seen on Earth by the human eye. In other words, when humans observe objects like a computer, a horse, the stars, the moon, or the sun, what we are really seeing is different wavelengths of light.

Looking through the FORCAST, "What we are seeing is the thermal radiation coming off of dust that is around the stars," Gull explained. "We can only do this above the water vapor above the atmosphere," which is why the scientists and science teachers had to go up in a plane.

Gull added that through SOFIA, astronomers are able to "look further back in time" by collecting protons, sub-atomic particles that make up what we might call stardust.

According to Gull, there are approximately 135 billion galaxies and within those galaxies there are 200 to 400 billion stars.

The dust particles of a star, which look like clouds through an optical telescope like the famous Hubble Space Telescope, consist of elements like silicon, sulfur, oxygen, nitrogen, water, neon, iron, and methane ice, Gull said, adding that the spectrograph, which measures lights, identifies those elements.

"This instrument observes this part of the spectrum," he added, pointing to a representation of the wavelength the FORCAST measures. "We're looking at electromagnetic radiation that is a little less energetic than red light."

On June 13, the scientists, teachers and a few journalists were excited to fly above the atmosphere and observe stars through Gull's FORCAST Instrument. But because of mechanical issues with the aircraft, NASA Mission Director Charlie Kaminski called off the mission about two hours into the flight, just above the Arizona/Nevada state line near Lake Mead.

Despite the June 13 mission being called off, Gull is optimistic his instrument will be commissioned on Tuesday for SOFIA's 107th flight.

The teachers, fortunately, had already flown on a successful mission. They walked away with a more informed perspective of the universe.

Alvarez and Munoz said they plan to coordinate a lesson plan on astronomy, with Munoz's seventh-graders teaching a lesson or two to Avarez's first-graders.

"We've been able to see things we normally just tell our students about," Munoz said. "We get to see scientists working and collaborating with different fields."

Munoz added that it's important to convey to her students the wide range of careers found at NASA and the teamwork needed to execute missions.

"For me, personally, getting to talk to the scientists has been a very rich experience," Alvarez added. "George is right there and he's telling you how he built it (FORCAST), explaining to us. That was very special to see the creator of this instrument."

On their June 11 flight, Alvarez noticed how focused and teamwork-oriented the scientists were when they were observing a planetary spectrum called a nebulae ring over the eastern U.S.

"We take home a huge experience from Tuesday," Alvarez added.

For Gorman, the entire experience has been rewarding - after all, he will be working with Gull over the next few years on what the FORCAST discovers during the scientific mission.

The scientific missions would be conducted by the Universities Space Research Association.

"There are so many engineers and a couple of astronomers," Gorman noticed of the SOFIA Mission XXXXXX team last Thursday. "There was a lot of people working together and solving problems."

Gorman said from the aborted June 13 mission, he learned how important problem-solving is, based on the interaction NASA officials had during their mission briefs, and will emphasize that with his 7th grade students in anything he teaches them.

"We use infrared everyday ... but we don't see that light," Gorman said, before adding, "Xboxes are infrared. We use the infrared telescope to see something that is created."

Dana Backman, SOFIA outreach coordinator, said the Chinle and El Paso teachers impressed the Airborne Astronomy Ambassadors Program committee with their intent to share their knowledge with the students, school and community - the main reason they were selected in the first place.

"They had a profound experience, and it's realistic not to have anything going perfectly," Backman said. "The whole process was to show them how the real scientific process works - blood, sweat and tears."

Contact Alastair L. Bitsoi at 928-871-1141 or email at