Countdown to my #2NightsInSpace

It’s almost here. Less than 12 hours until I’ll be landing in Palmdale, California. I’ve been waiting for this week for 10 months. Ten months since I got the email that said I’d been selected to participate in the Airborne Astronomy Ambassador program at NASA with my co-applicant Jeff Peterson.

Yes, you heard right, NASA…that NASA. The National Aeronautics and Space Administration! Many people think NASA was shut down in 2011 and no longer exists. Not true. While the decision was made to stop funding the Space Shuttle program, the government is still actively funding the International Space Station research, as well as unmanned and commercial crew initiatives. Part of the current research NASA is doing, along with selected university researchers, is with the Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy (SOFIA). It is a highly modified Boeing 747 equipped with an infrared telescope mounted to collect data in flight. SOFIA saw first light in 2010, but was preceded by the Kuiper Airborne Observatory (KAO) and is a joint operation of NASA and the German space agency DLR. I’m one of 28 educators selected to fly on this aircraft during a scientific mission.

During our week in California, we’ll be passengers on two flight missions. The scientists on board will be studying a variety of cosmic objects. These objects can be star, planets, dust clouds, and more. The list include Beta UMi (brightest star in the bowl of the “Little Dipper”), HL Tau (star in the constellation Taurus), and NGC 2264 (a cone nebula and star cluster) along with others. During our second flight, we will be capturing images of Neptune and Uranus!

In order to participate in this program, after being selected based on the merits of our application, we still had to complete and pass an online graduate-level Astronomy course. I hadn’t had any advanced science or math classes since high school almost 25 years ago and now I was being thrust into a graduate-level astronomy class? It wasn’t easy, but I passed and learned a great deal in the process. We also had multiple video conferences with the staff to learn what safety training and equipment we would receive on site.

Tomorrow morning, I’ll be arriving at LAX and will be taken immediately to the California Science Center for meetings and a tour of the Space Shuttle Endeavor, then proceed to the NASA Dryden Aircraft Operations Facility in Palmdale for more briefing and training. We’ve been sent the schedule for the week and we don’t have a lot of down time between meetings and preparations. However, I plan to blog daily, if possible, to keep everyone up-to-date on my adventure.

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Talking to 2nd graders about my #2NightsInSpace

On Friday, I was asked by a 2nd grade teacher to come in and talk with her students about my upcoming trip to space since I am leaving next week. I was happy to visit but was concerned at how much 2nd graders understood about space. The kids were engaged and had a lot of great questions. Here are some questions on the mind of 2nd graders when I tell them I’m going to be flying just outside the atmosphere:

  • How will you sleep?

Since I will only be airborne for 12 hours at a time, sleep is not that important. But, I assured them I would have plenty of time to sleep when I am on the ground so that I can enjoy the full experience.

  • Will you wear a helmet (got that one 4 times)?

A helmet would be needed if I left the aircraft because there is limited oxygen at that altitude. However, since I do not plan to intentionally leave the aircraft, no helmet is needed.

  • Will you fly the plane?

They have specially trained people to do that. They’re called pilots. If I’m asked to fly the plane, I would respectfully refuse.

  • Will the plane shoot fire?

Rockets launched far into space need an extreme amount of propulsion which is the fire you see. There may be a small amount of fire coming from the initial propulsion, but since we don’t need to get that far up, we won’t see a whole lot.

  • What will you eat?

Astronauts that go into space for extended periods of time, like on the International Space Station need specially dehydrated food to preserve. (I plan to get some Astronaut Ice Cream to show them upon my return.) However, since I will only be up there 12 hours, I can take most any kind of food I prefer.

  • Will you float away?

This opened up a small lesson on what gravity is and why you float in space. Unfortunately, I won’t be high enough to be significantly away from the gravitational pull of the earth, which is what causes the weightlessness (known as Zero G). The other way I would float is if the plan descended at a rapid rate, which I sincere hope does not happen!

That’s the gist of the questions. They opened up some great conversations about how space and gravity work and what our atmosphere does for us. One student kept calling the atmosphere “the shield” so the other kids picked that up too.  I survived the 2nd graders and their barrage of great questions. Next up, 1st grade on Monday morning!