The SOFIA Airborne Astronomy Ambassadors Program


The SOFIA Aircraft

It’s official! I’ve been chosen, along with Carolyn Bushman from Wendover Jr/Sr High School and 24 other teachers and informal educators, to be a SOFIA Airborne Astronomy Ambassador.

SOFIA patch

SOFIA patch

SOFIA is the Stratospheric Observatory For Infrared Astronomy, a converted Boeing 747SP aircraft that now houses a 2.5 meter infrared telescope. About twice per week, SOFIA takes off from Dryden Flight Research Center in Palmdale, CA and climbs to over 40,000 feet, where it is above 99% of the water vapor in the atmosphere. Water absorbs IR radiation, so ground-based IR telescopes have a very limited view. Space-based telescopes can’t be modified once they’re launched (the Hubble Telescope was unique in that it was designed to be serviced by the space shuttle, but now the shuttle days are over). SOFIA has the advantage of being very mobile; it can be sent anywhere in the world, both north and south hemispheres, to look at the entire sky. It also lands every morning, so that new equipment and new technologies can be readily added. It is expected to stay in service for 20 years, far longer than any other of NASA’s Great Observatories. I am attaching some PDF documents here that describe the program and the observatory itself:

SOFIA _QuickFacts2


SOFIA on the ground

SOFIA on the ground

My role will be to learn about IR astronomy through an online course through Montana State University that begins next week, then pair up with my partner (Carolyn Bushman) and a team of astronomers that will be using the SOFIA scope. We will communicate with them prior to their week and learn all about their target(s) and science objectives, then travel to Palmdale for a week of training and actually fly with them on SOFIA for two nights that week. I don’t know yet who we will pair up with or what week we will fly, but sometime in the 2012-2013 school year. We will continue to work with the astronomers as they analyze their data, then create lesson plans and other materials that can be used to bring IR astronomy to life for students. We are required to complete an outreach plan and present our experiences to other teachers and the public as often as possible.

Carolyn Bushman

Carolyn Bushman, my partner in the SOFIA team

For me, this is a wonderful opportunity to learn about a cutting-edge instrument, have a chance to be part of a new program, and just to go up higher than I’ve ever been before to see the universe in ways I’ve never seen it. Plus it’s going to be fun! I’ve met some of the scientists and engineers on various space probe missions and worked with the mission EPO (Education and Public Outreach) personnel at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, and they are all incredibly talented and bright people. It has been an honor to meet them. Now I will get to work with actual astronomers and be a part of their science, to see it unfold and share it with the public. This is literally a dream come true!

I’ve been hearing about SOFIA for the last 12 years or so. NASA bought the 747 from United Airlines in 1997 and began to convert it for a flying observatory by cutting a large hole in the left side of the fusilage behind the wing. But the project stalled out and was almost cancelled. Finally, I started hearing that it was going to happen and that I should keep my eyes open for a great educational opportunity. So I did. I knew I wanted to apply as soon as it opened up, and I asked Carolyn if she wanted to partner in a team. She has had quite a few NASA educational experiences, starting with her school being chosen as a NASA Explorer School in 2004. She has taken two groups of students to see launches of the space shuttle, including the final launch this summer. She has developed a strong friendship with shuttle astronaut Sandra Magnus, who has visited Wendover High School twice. Carolyn has been selected this year as the Educator of the Year for the Space Club of America. We both filled out the SOFIA application and submitted it by the deadline this last November 15. On Friday, Jan. 13, we heard that we had been selected. The official NASA HQ press release came out yesterday at 1 p.m. EST, so we can announce it to the world.

Here is the press release link: NASA Press Release

I don’t know how much publicity this will garner. FOX 13 news from Salt Lake City is coming to my school tomorrow to interview me, and we’ve sent press releases to local newspapers and radio stations as well. As things develop, and as I find out more about who we will be working with and when, I’ll announce it here.

About davidvblack

I teach courses in multimedia, 3D animation, Earth science, physics, biology, 8th grade science, chemistry, astronomy, engineering design, STEAM, and computer science in Utah. I've won numerous awards as an educator and am a frequent presenter at state and national educator conferences. I am part of the Teachers for Global Classrooms program through the U.S. Department of State and traveled to Indonesia in the summer of 2017 as an education ambassador. I learned of the Indonesian education system and taught classes in astronomy and chemistry at a high school near Banjarmasin in southern Borneo. I am passionate about STEAM education (Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts, and Mathematics); science history; photography; graphic design; 3D animation; and video production. This Spaced-Out Classroom blog is for sharing lessons and activities my students have done in astronomy. The Elements Unearthed project ( will combine my interests to document the discovery, history, sources, uses, mining, refining, and hazards of the chemical elements.
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