“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.
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!
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.
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.
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!