At 44,000 feet and surrounded by some of the most advanced telescopic equipment in the world, Dave Bloomsness and Robert Black were kids in a very expensive, flying candy store last week.
Black, 50, North Medford High School's astronomy teacher and planetarium director, and Bloomsness, 61, a member of Southern Oregon Skywatchers, were in a select crowd. They were among 26 educators and amateur astronomers chosen from around the nation to fly aboard NASA's Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy, or SOFIA.
Last Thursday and Friday, they took two 10-hour night flights aboard SOFIA, a modified Boeing 747SP. They rubbed elbows with astronomers and other scientists during the trip, part of a mission to gather data and infrared images of chaos light years away: the formation and destruction of stars, planets and black holes.
Now back on terra firma, their work isn't done. Outreach and educational talks — all open to the public — are up next. They've journeyed a bit closer to the stars, and they want to tell as many people as they can about their experience.
"In the continuum that is my career, it'll be one of those defining moments," Black says while seated in North Medford's planetarium. "There's probably been five or six of them in 27 years. You know, it'll be before SOFIA and after SOFIA."
"It gave me a whole new appreciation of the science behind astronomy," Bloomsness adds.
Educators have been flying aboard SOFIA since 2010 through NASA's Airborne Astronomy Ambassadors Program, and the friends wanted in.
They endured an application process and exhaustive online course of astronomy study before being told in November 2013 they were among those picked to make the trip.
When the week arrived, they traveled to Palmdale, Calif., to learn the emergency protocols in case SOFIA happened to go down.
"Basically the motto is, 'We don't want anybody to die tonight,' " Black says.
Both men received official NASA flight jackets, bright blue and bearing several patches along with their names, though Bloomsness's has only his first name — just how he wanted it.
When Wednesday night came, their excitement was palpable. Black and Bloomsness saw several mechanics preparing the aircraft before boarding.
"Everybody loves this plane. You can tell," Bloomsness says.
"It's spit-polished," Black chimes in.
There was a blink-and-you'll-miss-it power outage before they got airborne, Black says, leaving the friends concerned they'd never get off the ground.
"To me, I was terrified. I thought, you know, we came all this way, all this training," Black says.
But the small glitch was corrected, and they were cleared for liftoff.
Up in the air
The view at 44,000 feet isn't much different than how it looks on a typical commercial flight, Black says. The same clouds and patchwork landscape are below. The same firefly winks of cities gleam in the night.
Looking up, it's a different story. The thinner layer of stratosphere and lack of water vapor allow NASA scientists to gather the best images and data. Programmers, camera operators, and telescope operators man the controls for the telescope's 100-inch lens. The crew had their route for deep-space "targets" scripted and took images at plotted points along their journey.
When the stars, novas, planets and black holes came into view, guests got to be included in the process of gathering data.
"When they're on a target, they're calling up the guests, principal investigator astronomers, or they're calling us up," Black says. " 'Hey, look at this. We're looking at a proto-planetary disk. We're looking at a new star.' Whatever the target was at the time."
All images came in as infrared, allowing scientists to see through clouds of gas and dust for better views of their targets. Data on different wavelengths of light and their composition also were gathered at certain points. The interactions and enthusiasm of the scientists impressed Bloomsness and Black.
"You just watch them, and they're right on top of it. I was really impressed with how well they worked together," Bloomsness says.
As the plane descended back to base on the first night, the men were summoned to the cockpit to take a front-row seat. Black sat behind the pilot, and Bloomsness sat next to the navigator.
"The takeoff and landing both nights were just textbook. They were perfect," Bloomsness says.
Several public events are in the works for the educators, including a presentation at North Medford's planetarium tentatively scheduled for May 28. Future engagements are still being worked out, including dates at ScienceWorks and North Mountain Park in Ashland.
"Basically our experience on what we learned, what we saw and what we did," Bloomsness says.
They are hoping their experience will provide them with additional credibility as educators — they are now astronomers of experience who roamed beyond the classroom and planetarium, boarded a specialized telescope plane and voyaged that much closer to their subjects of study.
"I'm going to diligently keep up with these researchers and these topics. I'm going to see these images that were taken and use them. Dave and I were there," Black says. "I'll be able to say, 'This was from SOFIA. Oh, and by the way, Dave and I were there.' "