Fasten Your Seat Belts
Text and Photos
An invisible hand has Kara Shultis firmly in its grip, forcing her into the aluminum deck of the Gerard P. Kuiper Airborne Observatory.
"I can feel this one," she says, as centrifugal force squeezes her down. "My feet are firmly planted on the floor."
But as the Kuiper completes the latest in a series of banking turns and settles onto its new heading parallel to the Oregon coast, the pressure rapidly eases. Her apparent weight returning to just half what it was at the height of the turn, Shultis, a high school physics and chemistry teacher, continues videotaping her observations of the physiology of flight for her students in Williams Bay, Wis.
It is nearly 1 A.M. as the Kuiper--a modified military cargo plane operated by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration--completes one of a series of doglegs in a roughly 2,000-mile course along the West Coast.
A team of U.S. and German astronomers working forward in the C-141's immense hold has designed the flight plan to maximize the amount of time available to observe the infrared light that dwarf galaxies emit from light years away. The researchers hope to compare clues about how stars form in these relatively common galaxies with how they form in the more spectacular, but rarer, "spiral galaxies" to add to the vast jigsaw puzzle of knowledge that is contemporary cosmology.
It is a typical night aboard the Kuiper, the world's only airborne observatory, hurtling along at three-quarters the speed of sound while a laser-guided telescope searches out the cosmic nurseries that nurture developing stars. But the relatively routine flight is a once-in-a-lifetime experience for Shultis and her partner, Karen Hanson, a 3rd-grade teacher at the K-12 Williams Bay School.
Their astronomical trek comes courtesy of NASA's Ames Research Center's Flight Opportunities for Science Teach~er EnRichment program. The FOSTER program offers classroom teachers both a rare glimpse at cutting-edge science and the facts to correct students' misperceptions about what kind of people do science and how they do it.
"I think you change teachers' personal impressions of what science is all about," says Edna DeVore, the FOSTER project educator. "A whole lot of science teachers have never been in a research environment at all. They don't have an impression to convey otherwise what science is like."
An eight-hour flight on the Kuiper, particularly on this night when the astronomers are coping with technical bugs in the recently refitted aircraft's equipment, can therefore be particularly instructive.
"A lot of high-tech science is teamwork, and problem-solving, and taking risks to try experiments that may or may not work," DeVore adds.
Cleared for Takeoff
For most teachers, the flight aboard the Kuiper is undoubtedly the highlight of the FOSTER program.
But it is only the culmination of a lengthy preparation during which teacher teams discuss the purpose of the flight with the astronomy team and obtain classroom materials from a NASA teacher-resource center. Like all FOSTER teachers, Hanson and Shultis, who were nominated by astronomers from the University of Chicago's Yerkes Observatory in Williams Bay, also spent an intensive week last summer at the Ames center learning basic astrophysics.
Hanson and Shultis are among the first group of teachers from outside of California to fly aboard the Kuiper. The FOSTER program expanded beyond California and Hawaii this year.
In keeping with FOSTER's exploratory nature, the teachers are largely free after takeoff to leave the flight deck and roam about the airplane. But they spend most of their time in the rear of the aircraft answering students' wri~t~ten questions and performing such student-generated experiments as blowing soap bubbles to discover what effect altitude has on their shape.
And, as time permits, crew members join in to help explain the plane's complex instrumentation or simply to pass the time. Rick Doll, the Kuiper's telescope operator, for example, good-naturedly agrees to jump up and down for 20 seconds to measure the effect of altitude on the human body.
Later, over the headphones that all aboard must wear to drown out the roar of passing air, Doll announces that Robert H. Townes, a Nobel Prize-winning physicist and a leader of the observing team, is making his way aft to help answer questions from students. Thanks to his seminal work in developing the laser, and a related device called the maser, most scientists consider Townes the founder of the field of infrared astronomy. He's also a veteran of hundreds of Kuiper flights.
As the videotape rolls, he explains why he decided to focus his scientific curiosity on the apparently unrelated realm of astronomy. "I felt that it would be interesting to move on to different fields that other people weren't working in," he confides to the camera. "The laser itself gave me new possibilities for finding out new things about our universe."
For the teacher team, the chance to meet and question such a renowned scientist is an event in itself. "They told us, 'Oh, you'll be flying with Dr. Townes,'" Hanson remembers. "So we ran to the encyclopedia. We thought it would be a good idea to find out a little bit about what it was he won the Nobel Prize for."
Follow the Flight Plan
Astronomers regard the Kuiper, based at Moffett Field Naval Air Station in Mountain View, Calif., about 30 miles south of San Francisco, as an international asset. Last summer, for example, the plane flew to Australia, with a FOSTER teacher aboard, to take advantage of what astronomers called a "once in a millennium" chance to observe the impact of a comet with the surface of Jupiter.
The Kuiper is such a sought-after scientific tool because it does what no ground-based telescope can. Cruising at 41,000 feet, in the very thinnest reaches of the Earth's atmosphere, it collects invisible infrared light at a wavelength that, because it is trapped by atmospheric water vapor, never reaches the ground.
In addition to serving as the centerpiece of the FOSTER program, the Kuiper has also carried teachers and cameras numerous times as part of the Charleston, S.C., County schools "Can Do" project. As early as the mid-1980's, Can Do cameras that were to have flown on the space-shuttle mission immediately after the Challenger disaster were mounted instead on the Kuiper to observe Halley's comet.
Although its exterior is distinguishable from a military aircraft only by its NASA markings and distinctive paint scheme, the Kuiper's interior is crammed with an elaborate and confusing maze of electronics needed to operate the telescope mounted in a room-sized chamber just aft of the flight deck.
Above the telescope chamber, a hatch cut into the roof of the aircraft slides open once the plane reaches its cruising altitude to permit the telescope to gather light. A sign on the chamber door reminds everyone of the risk of asphyxiation in the unlikely event that the door should accidentally open while the plane is in flight.
To the rear of the telescope, banks of television and computer screens allow the observation team to keep the telescope trained on its target and to gather and store data for future analysis.
A three-person NASA flight crew keeps the aircraft on course and on schedule. But several other NASA personnel work at consoles near the telescope to maintain contact with the ground, and, most important, to act as go-betweens with the pilots to balance the objectives of the mission with the realities of the Kuiper's cruising range.
"On one of the objects, I would have just died for some more time," says Suzanne Madden, a NASA astronomer, of a typical conflict, "but we had to turn before we could get the data."
In a typical year, the airborne observatory will fly as many as 80 times. Up to 25 of those flights will carry FOSTER teachers. This year, because the Kuiper was grounded for months to undergo routine maintenance, it will fly only about half as often.
Nasa would like to replace the venerable Kuiper, which is more than 20 years old, with a modified 747 jumbo jet dubbed the Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy, or SOFIA.
The larger aircraft would carry a much larger telescope, which would geometrically increase the power of the airborne observatory. SOFIA would also be a boon to the FOSTER program, DeVore notes, because it could accommodate more non-scientists. "In a sense, the FOSTER project is an experiment itself in how you open up this kind of a scientific laboratory to the lay person," she says.
But for now, the fate of the FOSTER program come September--when the Kuiper is scheduled to go out of service--remains unclear. But if the Kuiper were to be retired and no money appropriated to build SOFIA immediately, the airborne portion of the FOSTER program also would be forced into a hiatus of several years.
Still, DeVore says, "they're not going to simply shut down and not do anything. I think that there is a certain momentum built up in this program that we're really loathe to lose."
Remain in Your Seats
In the meantime, DeVore says, a flight aboard the Kuiper will continue to make clear to teachers the risks, hazards, and even drudgery of scientific exploration.
Attendance at a 1 P.M. preflight briefing is mandatory for all prospective crew members, as is viewing a videotape about the hazards of flying aboard an aircraft that cruises near where the atmosphere and space meet.
And everyone aboard the plane gets personally fitted with an oxygen mask to be used in the event of a "rapid decompression." In that case, the tape warns, the pressure within the cabin, which is roughly equivalent to the air pressure at 10,000 feet, would swiftly drop to the near-vacuum pressure outside. The margin of error, should that occur, would be 30 seconds. If a mask is not donned in that time, unconsciousness and, possibly, death would result.
It is somewhat disconcerting, therefore, when shortly after takeoff, a light on the instrument panel indicates that one of the plane's airtight doors is ajar. Hanson, the 3rd-grade teacher who is seated immediately behind the pilot and on only her second airplane ride, is alarmed. "I thought, 'Stay calm, Karen. Stay calm,'" she later says.
But after much consultation and inspection, the pilots and flight engineer decide that the light is probably just malfunctioning. The flight can continue as scheduled.
Both Shultis and Hanson agree that minor technical glitches, including problems with the telescope-tracking software, helped round out their perception of how science is actually conducted.
"All of the difficulties just added up to show that science isn't perfect and that the whole idea behind science is not that you go into a lab knowing what the answer is," Shultis says. "But that you have to be true to what you observe. That's what science is all about."