Touring Day between my #2NightsInSpace

It’s difficult on your system to fly overnight two nights in a row, so NASA gave us the day off from flying. Since we’d already been through safety training, there wasn’t a lot we needed to do. After being allowed to sleep in and rest, we were taken to the SOFIA hangar at the Armstrong Flight Research Facility for a tour of some of the “behind the scenes” operations.

First, we met with Kevin and he explained to us about the ER-2 High-Altitude Airborne Science Aircraft.  He is the project leader on this aircraft and told us a lot about the plane. It is a two seat plane that flies up to 70,000 ft and does Earth Science research for NASA’s Airborne Science Program, also housed at the facility. The ER-2 is different from SOFIA because it points the instruments toward Earth collecting information on Earth resources, atmospheric chemistry and dynamics, and oceanic processes. Because of the heavy tail and the wide wings, Kevin said this plane is one of the most difficult to land. Therefore, the pilots must regularly take test flights to maintain their skills. Fortunately for us, today was one of those days and we got to see the plane take off. This plane thrusts one of the sharpest takeoffs of any aircraft and had the quickest takeoff I’ve ever seen.

After learning about the ER-2, we met Matt and learned about the DC-8, also part of NASA’s Airborne Science Program. This plane was much larger than the ER-2, but not nearly as large as SOFIA. I would compare it in size to your average commercial plane. This does similar research to the ER-2. The difference is that on the DC-8, the scientists ride on board during data collection and can adjust the instruments in flight. Whereas in the ER-2 the instruments are all autonomous and can’t be adjusted in flight. The DC-8 has a maximum altitude of 41,000 ft. Matt explained some missions the DC-8 performed in Antartica, Greenland, Hawaii, and other places around the globe. Both the DC-8 and ER-2 were being prepped for an upcoming campaign in Washington state.

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The DC-8

Next, we met with Zaheer, an Instrument Scientist that performs a lot of the pre and post use maintenance and improvements to the 6 (soon to be 7) instruments used on SOFIA. First, he showed us the Preflight Integration Facility. This is where an instrument is tested and prepared to be fitted to the SOFIA telescope for a campaign.

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This is the tool NASA uses to simulate SOFIA’s telescope to test and prepare the instruments.

Zaheer then showed us the GREAT Spectrometer, which is another SOFIA instrument that gets spectra readings on molecules in space. He showed us this instrument and explained how modular it was in order to maximize it’s effectiveness as well as make it easily upgradable.

He then walked us across the hangar and showed up the Mirror Coating Facility. This is where they would take the removed mirrors from SOFIA and coat them in a metal to make them reflective. The mirrors are huge, so they use cranes to move them and place them. What I found really interesting was that they test their mirror coating vat 3 times a year to ensure it’s readiness. However, they’ve had the SOFIA mirrors since 2009 and haven’t needed to coat them once. It’s great to be prepared.

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Used for Mirror Coating

As we ended our tour of the facility, we saw another plane being services and prepared for use. However, the painting on the plane resembled Air Force 1. What we learned was that it was actually a Congressional plane and was being repurposed for NASA use.

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Not Air Force 1

We then left the hangar and went to an area near the end of the runway to view the takeoff of the ER-2 mentioned above and also SOFIA. It was a nice end to the informational day as we prepared for our final flight on Thursday.

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Night #1 of my #2NightsInSpace

“Welcome to the mission briefing for SOFIA flight number F254,” said Karina, our Mission Director (DM), as she opened the mission briefing meeting. I was a bit surprised to see 33 people in the meeting for this flight. That’s how many people were directly involved in planning and execution of a single mission flight. That doesn’t include the other 200 employees that work for NASA SOFIA.

The meeting covered some technical information about the equipment checks, a weather report, some navigation information, and any unusual circumstances to this flight. One thing if interest was Dr. Sky, a show on coast-to-coast radio, was on the flight and at one point broadcasted live using Skype.

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This is the Principal Investigator, Ralph, standing and discussing what images the telescope was capturing with the two Instrument Scientists, Andrew and Joe..

After the briefing, we were given about 20 minutes to board the plane. A NASA videographer was following us around the whole flight and he used this time to take some beauty shots of us walking across the runway, up the gangway, and boarding the aircraft.
Many people scrambled around doing last minute checks and then we were strapped into our seats. Pamela, our escort, said that she got approval for 2 of us sit behind the pilot on takeoff and 2 on landing. I got the landing shift. On Thursdays flight, I’ll get the takeoff seat!

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I was buckled in to a seat in front of the educators instrument panel, put on my headset, and prepared for takeoff. The cool thing about these headsets is that we could monitor all the communication channels. So, any talk between pilots, researchers, instrument specialists, etc we could hear. We heard scientists discussing what cosmic phenomenon they were seeing at that very moment. We heard pilot conversations with Air Traffic controllers in various points around the US. We heard the Mission Director giving status reports on route locations, altitude, temperature, and air pressure. It really hit home how many people were involved in making this flight a success.

Take off was much more steep than a commercial airline. Since the plan was to get to high altitude quickly because we can’t use the telescope while climbing. To maximize time, the pilots got to the determined altitude for each leg of the flight very quickly so data could be collected almost immediately. Takeoff really wasn’t as fear inducing as I thought it would be. I did notice when I rode in the cockpit during landing that it feels more turbulence than the cabin does. One of the pilots said in 30+ years of flying large aircraft for the military, only once did he have an engine go out. And losing one engine on a 4 (or even a two) engine aircraft is considered an emergency. He’s still alive, so I took his word for it!

At various times during flight, we had Ralph, the Principal Investigator (PI), Andrew and Joe, the Instrument Scientists, and Mike, a NASA flight researcher, talked to us at length about what stars, protostars, asteroid belts, etc were being studies during this mission and also some of the reasons they studied particular events. A lot of what they study are newly forming stars and/or confirming or advancing the research on specific theories. Did you know that Pluto has been getting further away from the Sun over the past several years? Well, confirming (or not confirming) that data and theorizing on reasons is what these scientists do every day.

At one point, we were greeted by the lights of the aurora borealis right next to the Big Dipper. That was a sight to see. Hard as I tried, I couldn’t get a photograph to show up.  That was disappointing. However, having been born in Alaska, viewing the aurora borealis is on my bucket list. So, check that one off! You’ll just have to take my word on how awesome that was.

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Our pilots Wayne and Ace and Flight Engineer Chris

We got to visit the cockpit and talk to the pilots, Wayne and Ace (yes, really!) and Flight Engineer Chris during flight (and again at landing). Ace used to fly the carrier plane for the space shuttle and regaled us with stories about flying the shuttle and working with astronauts throughout his career. I could have listened to him all night.

The Space Shuttle carrier plane. Photo courtesy of NASA.

I can’t accurately convey all that happened during our 10 hours in the air and all that I learned about space, NASA, and the individual people I had the honor to fly with. Although I’m exhausted, I can’t wait to get back up in the air tomorrow night!

Training Day for My #2NightsInSpace

Today was training day! I was confident after learning more about Ham the NASA Chimp yesterday. I figured if a chimpanzee could qualify for space flight, certainly I could.

We arrived at NASA’s Armstrong Flight Research Center and had to go through a security check since it is a military facility. We watched a short video on the facility and the regulations we were expected to follow. They then gave us our badges (which I’m not allowed to post photos of) and we were escorted into the hangar facility. That is where we got the first look at the SOFIA plane!

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SOFIA!

We were briefed on what we could photograph in the hangar and what we were specifically not allowed to photograph. Apparently, NASA and our military are doing some confidential research with certain aircraft. There were 5 aircraft in the hangar used for various types of airborne astronomy, SOFIA being the largest by far.

The different components of SOFIA were explained to us and how it is different from commercial aircraft. The project team was explained to us and how many people were involved in a flight mission. It is amazing the amount of coordination that must happen to ensure our mission is successful from a research perspective.

After that, we were taken to the Egress training room  to learn all the safety procedures in case there’s an emergency. Oxygen is apparently hard to come by in space, so we need access to oxygen quickly.I laughed when I saw one of the oxygen masks had two settings….normal and emergency. If I’m putting on that mask, trust me, it’s an emergency! We also had to learn how to exit the aircraft, signal for help, and all the other fun stuff you don’t want to think about. Fortunately, there will be two safety specialists on board the plane, so I’m just going to stay close to those guys.

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Safety training

After that part of the training, a NASA scientist approached me specifically and introduced himself. This was odd because as me met people, they usually wanted to meet each educator (there are 4 of us). This guy just wanted to talk to me and already knew my name. It turns out, he was forwarded the Indy Star article about use from one of his college professors. Coincidentally, his brother lived 3 blocks from my school!

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On-board training

We were then taken onto the aircraft for the first time and showed where all the safety equipment was and also instructed about the on-flight procedures we must follow. Then, we were allowed to walk around the aircraft and take photos. We were given very specific instructions to not touch anything. Don’t worry, sir. I want the aircraft to stay in the air as much as you do.

That's the telescope behind me!
That’s the telescope behind me!

We are now getting some rest time before we have a dinner meeting with some of the flight team we will be flying with tomorrow. You can follow the flight on Flightaware and search for the tail number “NASA747”. It is becoming very real that this is happening!

Long First Day Upon Arrival For My #2NightsInSpace

We arrived at LAX at about 9:30 local time (which was 12:30 our time) after a pretty good flight out. We were picked up by our handler for the week, Pamela, and informed that the two other educators flying with us, Jackie and Melissa, would be arriving from D.C. and New York soon. We grabbed “breakfast” which was really lunch for us, and then waited their arrival.

Once we were all loaded into the van, we made our way to the California Science Center. Here we got to see the Space Shuttle Endeavor and tour some of their other space craft.

DSC01575The Space Shuttles were assembled at the facility where we will be spending our week, so it was very interesting to read all the history behind the different shuttle missions. We did some pretty cool science with these bad boys. Go USA! Unfortunately, the shuttle program ceased operation in 2011. So the Endeavor is retired here.

Since the California Science Center is right next to USC and also the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum, we stopped for a quick photo.

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Pamela then gave us some briefings on our week while we drove the hour long drive from Los Angeles to Palmdale where we will be spending our week at NASA’s Armstrong Flight Research facility, which is located just down the road from Edwards Air Force Base.

On the way, we made a quick stop at the Vasquez Rocks. Since we are with a bunch a science nerds, the Vasquez Rocks hold significance as the setting for many famous Star Trek episodes. Some other movies and TV shows were filmed here as well.

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Because of an awful experience working at a low-power TV station in college, I despise Star Trek, but the geological features were cool to see. Pamela also pointed out the view of SOFIA’s hanger, the aircraft we’ll be flying on, across the openness of the Mojave Desert.

We then were taken to our lodging for the week so we could unpack and get acclimated a little. We still have a dinner at 7 pm local time. They said that is by design. Since we will be flying overnight in 2 days, they are trying to get our sleep cycle adjusted. We will get more info at dinner about what our expectations are. Then tomorrow midday, we are visiting the hanger that houses SOFIA to get our first look at it and also tour the flight facility.