Last week, more than 200 staff and friends of NASA’s Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy (SOFIA) “gathered” online to celebrate the 10th anniversary of the observatory’s first science flight during the night of May 25-26, 2010. The flight was the culmination of 13 years of development and testing. Converted from a passenger aircraft, the Boeing 747SP found a new life carrying a 17-ton, 2.5-meter diameter telescope into the stratosphere.
The SETI Institute’s Dana Backman was at NASA Armstrong’s B703 airborne science facility for SOFIA’s First Light flight. Dana reminisced, “I actually helped Project Scientist Pam Marcum pick Jupiter as SOFIA’s first scientific target. With the rest of the staff, I had already lived through an episode of the mission being canceled by NASA and then restored by Congress. So, there was a feeling of ‘pinch me, is this really happening?’ as SOFIA took off. When they landed the next morning, I supervised the SOFIA First Light news release. The strongest link in the news release process was SOFIA staff scientist Jim De Buizer, who went on the flight, got only 2 hours of sleep after landing, and then in just 6 hours produced the Jupiter image from 3,000 component frames.”
The very first scientific images returned from SOFIA showed mid-infrared heat emission from Jupiter’s interior escaping to space mostly from a narrow latitude band, the white strip in the representational-color composite image on the right. That warm band corresponds to a region on Jupiter, prominent in the visible-light image on the left, containing reddish-brown organic compounds rising from the planet’s interior in the same upwelling.
On May 26, the SETI Institute marked the 9th anniversary of the first flight of teachers on SOFIA, coincidentally one year plus one day after the observatory’s First Light flight. Dana Backman was again in the thick of it as facilitator and escort for high school science teachers Mary Blessing of Virginia and Cris DeWolf of Michigan during their all-night flight. According to Dana, “I personally had been preparing for this particular moment for eight years. As SOFIA took off with Mary, Cris, and me sitting at the dedicated educators’ console on the mission deck, honestly, I had a lump in my throat. Many people had worked for many more years than I to bring about this moment, not the least of whom was the SETI Institute’s Edna DeVore. Edna designed the AAA program as part of the original proposal to NASA to develop and operate SOFIA.”
Here is a link to a video record of that first AAA flight:
Mary and Cris were the first two of more than 160 Airborne Astronomy Ambassador (AAA) teachers who have flown on SOFIA since 2011. AAA teachers are trained for and then escorted during their SOFIA flights by SETI Institute staff members Pamela Harman, Coral Clark, and Dana Backman.
Since 2016 the Airborne Astronomy Ambassadors project has been supported by Cooperative Agreement NNX16AC51A between NASA’s Science Mission Directorate and the SETI Institute.