We didn't do much science, but it was still cool

By Alastair Lee Bitsoi
Navajo Times

PALMDALE, Calif., June 20, 2013

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W hen my editor, Candace Begody, asked me into her office and informed me the National Aeronautics and Space Administration requested media coverage for Chinle teachers Melvin Gorman's and Gordon Serkis' participation in the Airborne Astronomy Ambassadors Program, I was blown away.

Initially, I didn't know what to say. Mostly because this is NASA that we are talking about - asking the Navajo Times for a story. I happily obliged.

Secondly, it also helped that the original reporter tasked with the assignment, Cindy Yurth, had declined the opportunity. Bless Cindy's heart for taking vacation during the time of the assignment, which allowed me to provide the media coverage. Besides, she had just returned from Washington D.C., where she attended this year's Scripps National Spelling Bee with Samuel Yeager, winner of the Navajo Nation Scripps Spelling Bee. Thank you, Cindy!

Thirdly, it was an opportunity I didn't want to give up. After all, I had given up the opportunity to write about Second Lady Jill Biden's visit to the Navajo Nation earlier last month as the commencement speaker at Navajo Tech. This time I wasn't going to surrender a plum assignment.

I did some research about the Airborne Astronomy Ambassadors Program and found out the Chinle teachers, along with two teachers from Texas, would be flying on Earth's only airborne observatory, the Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy, or SOFIA. How cool, right?

From my initial research, I learned that the SOFIA is a Boeing 747SP equipped with a 100-meter, or 2.5 meter, diameter telescope that uses several infrared instruments to examine star births and deaths, galaxies, cloud dusts and black holes in the universe. I also learned the telescope, developed by German scientists, is an 80-percent to 20-percent joint partnership between NASA and the German Aerospace Center.

This is all I knew. I was also aware of the need to get lots of rest, since the scheduled flight was to be all night, like a redeye one on commercial flights.

On our 10-hour drive to Palmdale last week, Navajo Times photographer Donavon Quintero, or DQ, and I talked about how excited we both were to ride in the SOFIA with the teachers, and the opportunity to view images of the universe through computer monitors on the observatory.

Once we got our night's rest, DQ and I made our way to Dryden Aircraft Operations Facility, where we briefly took pictures with and of SOFIA. We also went to Dryden to undergo safety training before boarding the aircraft. There, we met Nicholas Veronico, SOFIA public affairs officer, and reporters from 12News Phoenix and Sky and Telescope Magazine.

After our training, Veronico took to us to Panini eatery for a late lunch and to grab dinner to-go for our anticipated flight. Prior to boarding our flight, we mingled with the teachers and attended a mission brief, led by NASA Mission Director Charlie Kaminski. In total, there were 34 people onboard, including the teachers, reporters and officials from NASA, German Aerospace Center, and Universities Space Research Association.

After the mission brief, we boarded the SOFIA at about 6:30 p.m., ready for our nine-hour "bow-tie"-shaped flight that would have taken us to the Utah-Colorado state line, west into the Pacific Ocean, up north to Canada, down to the south Pacific and then back to Dryden.

This 9-hour flight, however, didn't happen. Before takeoff, the aircraft had issues with the electrical system, which had to be shut down briefly. To my understanding this is when the first engine fuel light of the aircraft turned on, which wasn't such a big issue to the pilots, meaning we were still able to fly.

Once we were airborne - this is the first time I ever rode first-class - the pilots and Kaminski gave us the nod to walk around in the aircraft. As soon as the safety light went off, the NASA, GAC and USRA scientists went to their workstations in the observatory.

They are separated into mini-departments, so to speak: the telescope operators, mission director, science flight planner and education public outreach, each with their own computer monitors collecting and analyzing data and images. And behind their workstations, at the tail end of the plane, is the telescope.

On the June 11 and 13 mission flights, the teachers were treated to examining the universe through an infrared instrument called the FORCAST. They also had access to the "toymaker" of the FORCAST, Cornell University engineer George E. Gull, who in spite of his interest in space, happens to be a down-to-earth person.

About two hours into the flight the second fuel light went on, prompting Kaminski and the pilots to abort the mission just above the Arizona/Nevada state line near Lake Mead. Kaminski, who has the authority to call off missions whenever deemed necessary, also required the fuel to spew out into the atmosphere to lighten the plane.

To land safely, Kaminski said, the SOFIA had to spew out fuel and return with at most 30,000 gallons of fuel. On a full tank, SOFIA drinks about 230,000 gallons.

Frustration filtered through the aircraft. A "Damn!" and "This would have to happen," could be heard, along with sullen silence.

Like one of my other stories point out, it turned out the mechanical issue was a false alarm.

Sometimes that's the way it goes, it's life. Or as Dana E. Backman, SOFIA Outreach Coordinator, put it, DQ and I got to experience the "blood, sweat and tears" of science - which after all is mostly trial and error.

And if there is one thing that I also crossed off my to-do list on this trip, it was sharing a round at a local brewery with world-renowned NASA scientists. Even if they were frustrated.

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