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First flight SOFIA

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It’s currently 7:00 am PST and 10:00 am EDT.  SOFIA landed this morning at approximately 5:00 am PST.  The idea was for us to stay awake the whole night, interact with the pilots, research astronomers, mission directors, data analysers and technicians.  And we did – a little.  Jen rode in the cockpit with the pilots during take off.  “Wow that was incredible” was her reaction – she got to see not 1, but 2 sunsets.  “So we were on the runway waiting to taxi and the bright orange sun hung low on the horizon.  As we waited, I watched patiently as the sun sunk behind the distant mountains – it was gorgeous, but not nearly as beautiful as the next sunset I was about to see.   As the plane ascended the light in the cockpit began to brighten, and there it was, the sun.  Only this time it was bright red and I could only see about half of it.  I expected it to fall shortly, but it didn’t.  The sun just kinda hung there for about 10 minutes.  The pilot told me this was due to the rising altitude of the plane, and we were literally catching up with it as it was setting – so it appeared stationary!”

Shortly after the fasten seatbelt sign turned off Jen came back down to the control center of SOFIA.  We gathered around the educators console to be briefed on the diagnostic plots and sensors that were displayed.  It was so LOUD in the SOFIA control center.  Everyone had to wear headsets just to hear the person next to them talk.  We could hear all communications from the cockpit to the control center (channel 1) as well as each other (channel 5).

Shortly thereafter, we ventured up to the control console where we could see a graph of the flight path plan and the actual flight path.  We were mostly on target!  There were 8 planned legs in our journey, each leg designated for a specific observation.  The first leg was dedicated to the calibration of the telescopes pointing system.  The next legs were dedicated to the science.  One scientists observed protostellar cores in an effort to understand how cavity outflow affects the developement of the core.  Another scientist was looking to observe the circumstellar disk around low to intermediate star formation regions.

Some of the observations took up to 4 or 5 hours.  So there was down time during long observations.  During this time Jen and I interviewed with SOFIA Education program co-manager Pamela Harman and NASA videographer Lori.  For a moment we were famous.  We then returned to our very spacious and cushy first class seats from the 1970’s.  We had a footrest and our seats were reclinable.  We ate dinner around 8:30.  As you can imagine, there were no flight attendants at your call and certainly no bags of peanuts.  So we had to pack our own lunch.  For this, we ordered take out at Panera Bread.  It was pretty awesome – Jen had a salad and pecan roll, I had a half of an italian sandwich.

Then, the one of the pilots came down and talked to us.  Jim Less invited Jen and I to come back up to the cockpit with him.  Even though we were directly invited by the pilots we had to have the all clear from Randy the Mission Director.  This was about the time Jen’s sinus meds kicked in and she fell asleep.  I, on the other hand, was a trooper so with Randy’s permission via Pamela I went up to the cockpit with the pilots and had a blast.  They sharing life experiences, their knowledge and we laughs.  Flying SOFIA is a retirement job for each of the pilots.  The pilots now do a lot of freelance work for NASA.   The head pilot for the flight was Ace, yes his real name, was a veteran at flying heavy aircraft.  He was one of the pilots that flew the Space Shuttle to and from different NASA airports across the nation.  He explained to me that the shuttle was only attached to the plane with three huge bolts and that while it was heavy it did create lift for the plane.  The one downside to transporting the shuttle was that due to its weight the plane had to make frequent gas stops to make even a short journey.  While in the cockpit I also learned that due to the high altitude the gasoline would begin to freeze.  Tom, the flight engineer, had to turn the heaters on for the gas tank every minute or so to warm the gasoline.   Since we were flying over the Pacific, very near Hawaii, there were no ground based towers to let other pilots (mostly commerical…remember Hawaii) know where we were located in the sky.  To help with this the flight plan contained waypoints and every time the plane hit one of the waypoint the pilot would report via radio their location.  That way other planes would know they were nearby.

After spending over an hour talking with the pilots I came back down to find Jen asleep in her chair.  I decided to go to the educators control panel sit in on a scientist interview of Micheal from Cornell University, this was his second flight on SOFIA.  For this flight he was looking at young stellar objects and how the mass of those objects affects their creation.  Soon after the interview there was a problem with the oil that moves the telescope.  The oil was overheating and data collection had to be stopped.  During this time the engineers were madly moving about the cabin trying to troubleshoot.  Two of the scientist missed their opportunity to collect data, but Micheal who was scheduled for the last 2 hours was able to obtain this information.

During the scramble to get the equipment back online I decided to take a seat back on “first class” where Jen was still sleeping.  I soon (3  hours later) found myself being awaken by Pamela telling me it was time to head back to the cockpit.  This time I was not able to speak to the pilots since they were communicating with the ground tower and going through prelanding, landing, and post landing checks.  Ace touched down heavy SOFIA as if he was placing a fine piece of china upon the table.

We were back at the hotel by 6 am PST and ate breakfast, then began this post.

It is not certain whether or not repairs will be made in time for Wednesday’s flight.

Stay tuned….

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