NASA's Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy (SOFIA) touched down at NASA Ames Research Center to an emotional welcome. Dr. Eric Becklin, SOFIA's Observatory Director and Chief Scientist, said, "It brought tears to my eyes to see this beautiful observatory arrive." Scientists, engineers, technologists and educators who have worked long and hard on this observatory surrounded Becklin. They were delighted to witness SOFIA make two fly-bys over Moffett Federal Airfield, and touch down to cheers.
SOFIA has been under development since 1996; it's a long-awaited infrared observatory that will take astronomers and educators on research flights to observe the infrared universe. SOFIA carries a 2.5 meter-diameter telescope to the stratosphere to rise above the water vapor and carbon dioxide in Earth's atmosphere that absorbs infrared energy. SOFIA will open new eyes on the universe.
On Monday, January 14, SOFIA was flown from NASA's Dryden Research Center to NASA's Ames Research Center for a 1-day visit. This allowed NASA employees, contractors, and their family and friends the opportunity to walk through the new airborne observatory. SOFIA's predecessor, the Kuiper Airborne Observatory (KAO), was also on display. A modified C-141 cargo aircraft, the KAO carried a 0.9 meter-diameter telescope to the stratosphere to conduct infrared research during a mission spanning more than two decades, including numerous deployments around the world. Carrying a much more powerful telescope and new instrumentation, SOFIA will resume these research missions once the engineering testing and other final finishing details are completed.
Together, SOFIA and the KAO made a dramatic pair as dusk fell upon the apron where they were parked.
More than 3500 people had the opportunity to see the observatories, and I saw smiles everywhere. I've been involved with airborne astronomy since 1991. In partnership with many people at NASA's Ames Research Center, I managed the FOSTER Flight Opportunities for Science Teacher Enrichment program for the KAO. In just over 3 years, we trained and flew teams of pre-college teachers on 50 research missions onboard the KAO. Their students thought that they had become astronauts, and that became a teachable moment for these educators. Recently, one of these educators told me that her students ask her each year if she's the NASA teacher. They're still proud and excited about learning science from her. It's a decade later, and still these educators' experiences of working with KAO scientists, NASA and the SETI Institute continue to have impact in their classrooms. SOFIA will be able to bring educators from all parts of the US and Germany to participate in research missions. It's a wonderful prospect.
I was so excited to be able to walk up the steps and enter the observatory with my friend, Carl Gillespie, who had first envisioned building an infrared telescope in a Boeing 747SP in the 1970s. Carl was a flight director on the KAO, and lost track of how many flights he directed over his 21-year career on the KAO. He's now retired, but was delighted to see his dream come to fruition. I was too. I'm looking forward to seeing scientists, undergraduate and graduate students, and educators work together onboard the observatory when SOFIA begins to do science routinely in a few years. There's great science and inspiring education and outreach in store for people across the world.
SOFIA is a joint program of NASA and the German Aerospace Center (DLR). Overall SOFIA program management is based at NASA's Dryden Flight Research Center in southern California, while the scientific mission and operations are planned and run from NASA's Ames Research Center in northern California. Universities Space Research Association (USRA) and the Deutsches SOFIA Institut at Universitaet Stuttgart manage science operations for NASA and the DLR, respectively. SOFIA's home hangar will be at the Palmdale (California) Airport near Dryden. The SETI Institute and the Astronomical Society of the Pacific are partners in administering SOFIA's education and public outreach programs.