Teachers complete preparations for NASA Sofia program


Photo by Cassidy Viox

Nikol Slatinska

As a child, astronomy and geology teacher Rex Beltz dreamed of being an astronaut.
Similarly, planetarium director Melanie Knocke knew from a young age that she wanted to be involved in the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) in any way possible. She sought a career in astronomy, thinking it would help her break into the astronautical field.
Although they both eventually chose different career paths from their original ideas, they embarked upon a journey nearly two years ago that rekindled their love for what lies beyond the atmosphere.
Following a strenuous preparation process that began after applying for NASA’s Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy (SOFIA) Airborne Astronomy Ambassador (AAA) Program, coordinators notified Beltz and Knocke in March of this year that they would be flying on the Boeing 747SP jetliner this fall.
Dr. Dana Backman, the SOFIA outreach coordinator, explains the selection process responsible for choosing this year’s 22 fliers.
The teachers apply as teams of two. We have had yearly calls for applications nationally advertised in science teacher magazines. The applications are reviewed by a panel of peer educators,” Dr. Backman said. “The reviewers look for innovative, creative plans for how to bring the SOFIA training and flight experience back to home, schools and communities.”
The notification that they would be flying was not immediate for Beltz and Knocke, however. Beltz first heard about the program when Knocke received an email proposal to fly on the SOFIA Airborne Observatory.
She told him that she really wanted to apply but needed a classroom teacher as her partner, and Beltz agreed. They applied in December of 2014. Although NASA accepted their application, it wasn’t for their desired program.
“A couple months later we got an email back that said, ‘Congratulations, you have been accepted!’” Beltz said. “And I jumped up and down and ran through the hallways high-fiving people. I called Mrs. Knocke, and I said, ‘Did you get the email?’ And she was like, ‘Yeah. Why are you so excited?’ And I said, ‘We got accepted!’ and she goes, ‘Read the next line,’ and it said, ‘You have been accepted to the Earth Partners Program,’ which meant we did not get to fly.”
Beltz and Knocke spent the rest of 2015 taking courses about the history of SOFIA and infrared astronomy in order to effectively observe black holes, nebulae, planets and other parts of space with the plane’s 100-inch diameter telescope. Eventually, they became certified airborne astronomers, which meant they would ultimately get to fly.They began taking even more classes to prepare for flying, which mostly took place through monthly online seminars. They didn’t go through much physical preparation; they just had to be cleared to fly by a medical flight doctor.
Initially, the seminars were about infrared astronomy and educational outreach, how to teach about infrared astronomy,” Knocke said. “But as the time drew nearer, they got more flight-specific. Just within this last month we’ve had several conferences over the Internet about what to expect, what to bring, what to pack. We’ve been given the flight paths, so we know where we’re going to fly and what we’re going to look at, so we’ve been researching those objects. I’m familiar with astronomy, but some of these objects I’ve never heard of, so that was exciting.”
Their schedule said they would leave on Sunday, Nov. 6 for Los Angeles, California and fly on Monday, Nov. 7 and Wednesday, Nov. 9. The flights were expected to be nine to 12 hours long. Knocke explained that the first day on the flying base would be hectic with everyone having to go through security and get their IDs checked. Next, the teachers have a flight briefing and go through egress procedures on the plane to learn what to in case of an emergency.
Fliers must act with caution on the base, as NASA shares it with the military, so there are various aircraft and instruments located on it that are sensitive to photography. Knocke explained that if anyone is suspected of trying to take photos on the base, their phones and cameras will be confiscated. If supervisors suspect any further foul play, they’ll send armed men to take care of the situation.
Although this makes the flight sound like a top secret Bond-style mission, the goal of the trip is to observe various elements of space. Many of Beltz’s students and peers seemed to be confused over what would actually take place.
“When anybody ever asks about our mission, they think we’re going to space,” Beltz said. “They’re like, ‘So did you have to go through the centrifuges?’ They think we’re going through the astronaut program.”
Beltz’s students are excited for him, nonetheless, and it’s this ability to inspire educators and young people through astronomy that caused NASA to fund the AAA program.
“[The goal of the program is] to give classroom teachers an experience of real frontier research and convey that understanding and the excitement and value of scientific research to their students and colleagues,” Dr. Backman said. “[NASA created the program] to give teachers a chance to better understand how scientific research is done by watching and talking with scientists at work.”
Beltz and Knocke plan on sharing what they learn by giving talks on their experience at the University of Missouri- Columbia (MU) and at the RBHS planetarium although they haven’t yet figured out the specifics of when and where all of their talks will take place. Beltz has already introduced some of what he has learned into his class lectures.
“We’ve always talked about the electromagnetic spectrum and how we see so little of the universe with our naked eyes. We have a unit where we talk about historical astronomy, and we talk about guys like Aristotle, Ptolemy, Copernicus and how all they had to answer the questions of the universe was their eyes,” Beltz said. “They made amazing, astounding contributions to astronomy, but there’s so much more that we can see and learn about the universe if we use the entire electromagnetic spectrum beyond just what visible light shows us. Actually, visible light hinders our knowledge of the universe because it blocks our views of things like black holes, supernovas and planetary nebulas things that we can see when we use infrared, ultraviolet, X-ray. We get a broader and deeper understanding of the universe when we use all that information.”
Knocke plans on keeping people updated by posting on Facebook and the planetarium’s website, as well as on her new Twitter account, which she recently learned how to use in order to share her excitement over the trip. Although she feels nervous about what is to come, she already feels the significance of the entire process.
“[The program] has rejuvenated my interest in astronomy,” Knocke said. “I’ve been in this field for over 30 years saying the same things over and over again. For me, this is an opportunity to do something new. It’s given me a new life [and] a new outlook on astronomy, which I really needed.”
For Beltz, the chance to fly for NASA has renewed his childhood dreams of wanting to be an astronaut as well as his persistent passion for astronomy.
“This is like the culmination of a lifelong dream,” Beltz said. “I never thought it would happen, but I’m so excited to be able to take advantage of this opportunity. In fact, after I got accepted into the program, when the open applications came for the astronaut program, it caused me to apply there as well. I am more than likely probably not going to get accepted, but I haven’t been rejected yet.”