Saturday, March 18, 2017

Science flights give center director new perspective

NORMAL — Stacey Shrewsbury recently took her love of flight and exploration to new heights — 43,000 feet, to be exact.

Shrewsbury, lead flight director at the Challenger Learning Center at Heartland Community College, flew aboard the Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy last week as part of a program to give educators a first-hand opportunity to see scientific researchers at work.

During the two flights she made while in California, in discussions on the ground and a course she took as part of the project, Shrewsbury learned a lot about infrared astronomy and the electromagnetic spectrum.

She also learned about teamwork.

“Individual teams need to come together for the mission to be a success. That's what we do here,” said Shrewsbury, with her feet back on the ground on the Heartland campus.

The flying observatory — called SOFIA — carried a Field Imaging Far-Infrared Line Spectrometer on Shrewsbury's two flights. The equipment included a telescope with a 100-inch-diameter mirror pointed out the open door of the modified 747SP aircraft. The plane is based at the Armstrong Flight Research Center in Palmdale, Calif.

During “missions” at the Challenger Learning Center, participants are assigned to teams and told each team is important and if one team fails, the mission fails, explained Shrewsbury.

“I saw that with SOFIA time and time again,” she said.

The flight crew, telescope operators, scientists, technicians, mechanics and others on the ground and in the air all worked together, engaging in “problem-solving and team building on the fly,” said Shrewsbury.

“What I really appreciated and took away from this is the passion that each individual carried with him or her through the mission and the SOFIA program,” she said.

The project is a partnership between NASA and the German Aerospace Center. The primary focus of the scientists on Shrewsbury's flights was mapping the M51 galaxy, also known as the Whirlpool Galaxy that is about 30 million light-years away.

Adjusting to the time change and different sleeping schedules was a challenge. The flights took place at night. The second one lasted from 8:30 p.m. until 6:30 a.m.

A pilot herself — although of much smaller planes — Shrewsbury followed their flights on her own tablet and was on the flight deck for the takeoff of the first flight and landings of both flights.

A typical 747SP can seat about 230 passengers. But Shrewsbury said their SOFIA flights, equipped with various science stations and equipment, had 23 people on board.

Shrewsbury was partnered with Jennifer Hubbell-Thomas, a science teacher at Williamsville (Ill.) Junior High School. They worked together as “earth ambassadors,” providing educational programs, before being selected to fly aboard SOFIA as “airborne astronomy ambassadors.”

The purpose of the program is “to more effectively engage learners of all ages on NASA science education programs and activities,” according to the SETI Institute, which manages the ambassador program.

Shrewsbury will talk about her experiences at various events, including the Parent-Child Astronomy Exploration program April 1 at the Challenger center.

One of the mission directors told Shrewsbury that his interest in astronomy was triggered by a junior high school teacher who brought an inflatable planetarium to the classroom. 

Her hope is that students participating in missions at the Challenger center will find a similar spark that inspires them.

“What I want people to walk away with is to find that interest, find that passion and ride that passion,” she said. “Use it to push you forward and propel you to the next thing.”

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