Many thanks to Audrey Williams for graciously writing this Junior Journal based on Steve Kliewer's original writing. Audrey is the Education Coordinator at the American Museum of Science and Energy in Oak Ridge, TN
If you would like to help produce future Junior Journals, please send a note to firstname.lastname@example.org. Thanks.
"NASA 714 Heavy Jack, you are cleared for take-off on runway 8 south"
by Steve Kliewer
Phase I: KAO
Friday, August 4,1995
My wife, Judy and I arrived at Honolulu International Airport at 11:20 AM Hawaiian Standard Time (HST) after a 5-hour flight from San Francisco. The ocean was painted in shades of blue and green. The sky was a deep blue and the plants were a dark green with lots of splashes of vibrantly colored flowers. It was warm and humid. This was a big change from the morning.
We had left Fresno, California at 6:00 am Pacific Daylight Time (PDT) on a 30 passenger turboprop airplane for a 35 minute flight to San Francisco. The sunrise over the Sierra was outstanding and the views of the valley were fascinating. However, the entire bay area was covered in fog and nothing on the ground could be seen until just before we landed.
In San Francisco we changed to a wide-body jet holding about 400 passengers. During our acceleration down the runway, I tried to imagine the air racing over the wing faster and faster until there was enough less air pressure on the top that the air on the bottom could lift this huge aircraft off the runway. I could only marvel that airplanes really do fly. On takeoff, rising through the fog layer again, we quickly lost sight of the ground. A few miles out over the Pacific the fog disappeared and the rest of the flight was over a beautiful blue ocean speckled here and there with whitecaps and coated with small puffs of clouds arranged neatly in rows far below us. The pilot informed us that our cruising altitude this flight was 34,000 feet. As we made our final approach, I was surprised and excited to see the Kuiper Airborne Observatory parked in front of a hanger in what later turned out to be the military part of the airport, called Hickam Air Force Base.
Once we arrived in Honolulu we checked into the Hilton Hawaiian Village in Waikiki. This is a superb resort. It is a complete village of shops, services, and entertainment; and is right on Waikiki beach. Paths wind between buildings among lush vegetation, waterfalls, palm trees, Koi pools, & even penguins.
During check-in, Judy and I were met by another observer Steve Cox and his wife, Ruth. Steve Cox is the observer from the Rotary Clubs that sponsored a large part of this trip for Jean Roberts and I. Jean Roberts, my partner in this team, was due to arrive later this evening. Once we had checked in we talked with the NASA representative, Edna DeVore, and arranged a preliminary visit with the Investigators on the KAO that afternoon. After a beautiful drive through Honolulu on Interstate highway H1 we were admitted through security onto the base. It is a beautiful base with old but well maintained buildings, some of which still show the scars of aircraft gunfire during the Japanese invasion. When we arrived at hanger 13, only the ground crew was there. They were busy re-filling the on-board liquid helium supply, testing the flight systems, and slowly warming and drying the telescope from that morning's flight. The normal mission schedule allows for a mission every other night.
The crew was very helpful, allowing us to climb all over the aircraft, sit in the pilots seat on the flight deck, look in the telescope compartment and generally make like tourists and take lots of pictures.
Shortly after this the scientists (known as Investigators) arrived and after introductions they were eager to explain to us what they would be attempting to do on tomorrow night's mission. There were actually two groups of investigators on board, each group with a different but complementary objective. The first group, from the University of Wisconsin, had selected objects in the southern sky, and would observe during the first half of our mission while we flew westward. The second group, from Harvey Mudd University, would then take over during our return (eastward flight) for observing their objects in the northern skies.
Both groups would be doing things differently but they were looking for answers to, basically, the same questions: "How do galaxies form and evolve?" "What is the shape and chemical structure of our own galaxy?" The types of chemicals and where they are found are the fossil record of the evolution of a galaxy.
Studying our own galaxy is like trying to study a whole forest from one location within the forest. "You can't see the forest for the trees." Visible light, the light that we can see, is absorbed by all the dust here in the galaxy. The very thing we want to study keeps us from seeing very far. Infra-red light (IR) is not absorbed by the dust. So, we can see much more distant objects as long as they are radiating IR. It turns out that hot new stars forming in the middle of dust clouds cause the dust to radiate IR. The specific wavelengths of IR that are coming from the dust, tell us much about what the dust is made of. However, after making the journey across the galaxy, infra-red light is strongly absorbed by the water vapor in the earth's atmosphere before we can get a chance of seeing it.
That us why we use the KAO. It flies at an altitude above 98% of all of the earth's water vapor. Even though the telescope is relatively small, and it costs a lot to use, it is the best alternative to satellite based IR observations. Compared with satellites it is much cheaper and more easily updated and repaired. Mauna Kea, at 14,000 ft is the next best alternative for ground based IR observations. After the KAO flight I spent an evening observing with an astronomer at the IR observatory, UKIRT, on Mauna Kea.
When I mentioned that I was planning to conduct an experiment to measure the relative Cosmic Ray intensities at various altitudes, the Investigators were quite interested. It turns out that cosmic rays are the main source of background noise in their IR detectors in the telescope. It was their thought that having a measurement of this source of interference while they were making their own measurements would allow them to get greater accuracy in their data analysis. I was asked to provide them the results after my experiments. I was tickled pink.
After a long, friendly visit with the Investigators, we went off to dinner with another astronomer whose job this mission was "Tracker". His responsibility was to correctly identify the star-field and make sure that the telescope was properly aimed at the correct objects. He had just returned from an observing run at the Cerro Telolo observatory in the Chilean Andes. Transportation, housing, and weather problems are all "par for the course" with astronomers. I had a fascinating visit with him. We finished dinner by 11 PM local time This was a very LONG day. We had gotten up in Fresno at 4:30 am and were now returning to our room at 2 am (Fresno time).
Saturday, August 5, 1995
We returned to the KAO for a 1 PM briefing. This is required for everyone, and is a good chance to meet everyone. It was a quick, no-nonsense meeting where last minute problems are brought up and solved. Jim McClenahan is the Mission Manager (i.e. Top Dog on this deployment). He is an easygoing friendly type, which is good since I still need clearance to set up my Compact Cosmic Ray Telescope (CCRT). As soon I can I set up the CCRT and show it to Jim. He asked several questions concerning flammability, hazardous chemicals, dangerous gases, and shock resistance. I showed him how I planned to mount it and that I needed access to a 110 Volt AC outlet for my power supply. I was instructed that all power must be turned off and all loose items must be stowed during take-off and landing. He finds an engineer and we take it out to the plane and find a secure out-of-the- way location and mount it there. I am so relieved. I have spent a great deal of time, money, and emotion on this experiment and it has hinged on this moment.
After the meeting we are fitted for oxygen masks. On aircraft flying up to 41,000 ft, oxygen masks must be easily available to all personnel. Above 41,000 ft they must be worn at all times. Each one of us receives a mask that is individually inspected, tested, and adjusted for us. These are full military style oxygen masks and are strange looking devices designed to be worn over the headphones and microphones that we will be wearing.
The navigator has not yet completed the final flight plan. There is a group of pilots and Investigators hovering over him as he works on his notebook computer figuring in the latest wind speed predictions, and adjusting the lengths of flight legs (straight sections of flight paths) to shift observing times for individual Investigators or to maximize observing legs and minimize "dead" legs. We return to the hotel for dinner and rest. I don't get much of either. I am far too excited.
Take-off is scheduled for 9:20 PM HST and we return to Hickam in time for the regular mandatory pre-flight meeting at 8:00 PM. We are given copies of the final flight plan, crew list, and the Investigators work plan. I start the CCRT to obtain sea-level measurements (about 10 counts per minute). During this meeting, we are invited to ride in the flight deck with the pilots during takeoff. This is beyond my wildest expectations.
Everything is at a feverish pitch. I run out of time to complete my measurements and am quickly taken to the flight deck where we are seated, buckled in and our headphones are adjusted so we can listen to the tower as well as the pilots. The pilots quickly and professionally go through a checklist and start the engines. Everything is done in a relaxed, light manner but without any wasted motion. After checking the control surfaces and getting a go-ahead from the flagman we begin to taxi, and taxi and taxi some more.
Finally we turn off the taxiway and stop. After what seemed a long wait I hear the tower "NASA 714 Heavy Jack, you are cleared for take-off on runway 8 south." Soon we pull onto the runway and immediately the engines go to full scream and we are hurtling down the runway. The time is 9:15 PM, 5 minutes ahead of schedule. As we quickly pull up, all of the lights of Honolulu and Waikiki are spread beneath us. We bank right (south, out to sea) and Jean and I are craning our necks to see the cities. Shortly, I look the other way and suddenly notice the full moon above us and it is circled by a delicate pale ice-ring and surrounded by stars. In spite of the moon, the stars are sharper, brighter, and more beautiful than I have ever seen them before. This is understandable but none the less surprising and wonderful.
Soon we run out of lights and I am feeling the need to start taking data so Jean and I return to the main cabin with the Investigators. I quickly set up the CCRT and begin to take data. Wow! I am overwhelmed by how fast my counter is going. Immediately I suspect damage or misadjustment. I recheck all connections and voltages, and observe the instrument's operation. It becomes clear that the equipment is operating perfectly. It is just that the intensity is much higher than I expected. My heart falls back out of my throat and I quickly rethink my data collection plans. Instead of counting for 30 minutes, I decide to simply measure the time needed to fill the counter (256 counts).
Meanwhile, the Investigators are also having problems. They aren't getting the signal they expected. First, there is still a little high level water vapor above us at 37000 ft that is probably absorbing much of the signal. Second, they are unsure that the telescope is tracking on the correct object. Third, the detectors are undergoing some sort of unexpected movements and may not be calibrated properly.
After carefully eliminating each factor, performing a bunch of tests, the investigators become convinced that the expected signatures of ionized oxygen and carbon are either not present or are much weaker than expected. Only later analysis will tell for sure. This may have a direct effect on current theories of stellar and galactic evolution. In any case it will strongly affect one researcher's doctoral thesis and he is quite sober and thoughtful after this.
Most of the mission their data collection is a repeating series of: acquire new object, select filter and wavelength, integrate, nod, store data, and repeat. Since the signal is always so weak compared to the background, the optics are set up such that the infra-red detectors are rapidly "chopped" back and forth between receiving light from the object and a patch of empty sky next to it. This allows the tiny signal to be distinguished accurately from the overwhelming noise or background. However, because the background at the nearby patch is not necessarily exactly the same as at the object itself, the whole telescope is "nodded" over so that the chopping is now done between the object and a patch of empty sky on the opposite side of the object. This is to help get rid of the background interference.
Sunday, August 6, 1995
The night quickly settles into a pattern, shifting between my data collection and watching theirs. With 8 investigators on board, the chatter over the intercom is hard to follow. Since the noise level of the aircraft is extremely high, it was necessary that each of us wear headphones to block out the noise and to allow us to listen to the intercom system. Each of us has a microphone. But since there was only one intercom channel, I leave my mic off most of the time so that I don't interfere with the investigators.
As the investigators settle into a routine they invite Jean and I to participate in their data collection. We are assigned the duty of monitoring the strip chart recorder and making notes on it. This provides a sort of log of what was done throughout the mission and is the key to identifying the appropriate data that is being recorded simultaneously on magnetic tape. At this time we get the opportunity to ask a lot of questions about the meaning of all the displays, how the equipment works, and what the results probably mean. The intercom system is confusing to use since there is no clue to who is talking Someone could be at my shoulder, talking directly at me and he would sound just like someone in the rear of the plane talking to someone completely different.
The crew this mission consists of: a pilot, co-pilot, & flight engineer on the flight deck. A mission director, telescope operator, tracker, computer operator, 8 investigators, 4 observers from FOSTER, and one equipment engineer. Twenty people in total. A full house. The 8 investigators consisted of two teams plus NASA co- investigators. The first team was made up of Ed Churchwell, a professor at the University of Wisconsin, and his graduate student, Andrew Afflerback, who's doctoral thesis is based on this research. The second team consists of Alex Rudolf, a professor at Harvey Mudd College; and his undergraduate students, Travis Norsen and Nemo Nicholas. Both teams are supported by NASA scientists, Ed Erickson, Mike Haas, & Sean Colgan. The FOSTER team consists of Edna DeVore, a teacher employed by the SETI Institute to coordinate this project; Steve Cox, an observer from Rotary, our sponsor; Jean Roberts & I.
As time passes, the plane uses enough fuel that we can change our flight level in steps from 37,000 ft to 39,000 ft and finally to 41,000 ft. This gives me the opportunity to get good data at three different altitudes. This leaves me nothing, however, for the in-between altitudes. Near the end of the mission, I prepare to take continuous measurements during our descent for as long as I can. However, the investigators need every last second they can get on the last calibration leg and when the pilots start our descent it is sudden and steep. They immediately require me to shutdown and buckle in. Oh well!
Fifteen minutes later (4:50 am) we are on the ground, parked, power off, and unloading. I intended to take some more measurements, but normal procedures have turned off all power and everyone is speedily packing up and leaving. The 7-hour flight throughout the night has been exciting and has gone fast. But, I am quickly coming down and feeling very tired. We quickly return to the hotel, I barely take a shower and quickly fall asleep and sleep till noon. My internal clock is thoroughly confused by the time zone change as well as my odd hours of late.
After I recover a little, Judy and I have a day to be tourists and take in a Polynesian magic show, an excellent dinner and the Polynesian cultural center. Wonderful choices, it was marvelous.