Press Release

Teachers Selected to Fly on SOFIA Airborne Observatory

By SpaceRef Editor
May 12, 2011
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NASA’s Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy (SOFIA) program has selected six middle and high school science teachers to fly onboard the observatory aircraft during research flights in May and June 2011. In this “pilot” implementation of SOFIA’s Airborne Astronomy Ambassadors program, teams of educators will be partnered with researchers to observe and participate in science first-hand and then take their experiences back to their classrooms and communities.

SOFIA is a highly modified Boeing 747SP aircraft fitted with a 2.5-meter (100-inch) effective diameter telescope that analyzes infrared light to study the formation of stars and planets, the chemistry of the interstellar medium, the composition of comets, asteroids and planets, and supermassive black holes at the centers of galaxies. Infrared observations are optimum for studying low-temperature objects in space such as the raw material for star and planet formation, and for viewing through interstellar dust clouds that block light at wavelengths seen by the human eye. The Airborne Astronomy Ambassadors program is facilitated through the SOFIA Science Center (SSC) at NASA Ames Research Center in Mountain View, Calif. managed by the Universities Space Research Association (USRA).

“USRA is proud to take the leading role in administering the Airborne Astronomy Ambassadors program,” said Dr. Frederick Tarantino, USRA President. “Enabling educators to participate in actual, world-class science, and then impart the lessons learned in the classroom is a tremendous opportunity to motivate our youth into science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) careers.” The six educators chosen for this Airborne Astronomy Ambassadors pilot program each submitted applications for peer-review. They were required to include in their applications a description of how they would use their SOFIA training and flight experience in future teaching, mentoring of fellow teachers, and community outreach back to their classrooms and into the local communities. The teachers selected are:

* Marita Beard, Branham High School, San Jose, Calif.
* Mary Blessing, Herndon High School, Herndon, Va.
* Cris DeWolf, Chippewa Hills High School, Remus, Mich.
* Kathleen Joanne Fredette, Desert Willow Intermediate School, Palmdale, Calif.
* Margaret “Peggy” Piper, Lincoln Way High School, Frankfort, Ill.
* Teresa Paulson, Mellen School District, Washburn, Wisc.

“We know that teachers who participate in science research programs have their careers re-energized, and their students’ engagement with technical subjects are measurably increased for many years afterward,” said Dr. Dana Backman, manager of SOFIA’s education and outreach programs. Backman is an infrared astronomer who participated in several research flights on SOFIA’s predecessor, the Kuiper Airborne Observatory, which also flew educators in a similar program from 1990 to 1995.

USRA’s Dr. Erick Young, SOFIA Science Operations Manager, said, “Our Airborne Astronomy Ambassadors’ program allows us to engage students by showing them the whole scientific process, from development of the investigations, to conducting the observations, to producing the results. The students will learn that infrared technology we’ve developed for SOFIA will enable new scientific understanding. Sharing what we learn through infrared astronomy is one of the benefits of our mission.”

SOFIA is a joint program between NASA and the German Aerospace Agency (Deutsches Zentrum fur Luft- und Raumfahrt – DLR), Germany. The SOFIA program is managed by NASA’s Dryden Flight Research Facility and the aircraft is based at the Dryden Aircraft Operations Facility in Palmdale, Calif. NASA’s Ames Research Center, Moffett Field, Calif., manages the SOFIA science and mission operations in concert with the Universities Space Research Association (USRA), Columbia, Md., and the Deutsches SOFIA Institut (DSI), Stuttgart, Germany.

NASA will host an online video chat about SOFIA with Project Scientist Pamela Marcum for approximately one hour at 1 p.m. EDT on Thursday, May 12. Participants will join a conversation about SOFIA’s first science flights, targets of opportunity and plans for future flights. Based at Ames, Marcum is an expert on galaxy evolution and worked on the first extensive ultraviolet imaging of nearby galaxies. For more information on the chat and to participate, visit:

For more information about SOFIA, visit:

For information about SOFIA’s science mission, visit:

About USRA

Founded in 1969, USRA is an independent research corporation with competencies that span space, Earth, and life sciences related disciplines, which are closely aligned with the nation’s science and national security agencies. As a non-profit corporation with 105 major research university members, USRA’s scientific and technical staff collaborate with over 300 universities annually. This depth of reach into the research community provides a unique platform for advancing science and technology.

SpaceRef staff editor.