"A Trip Aboard the Kuiper"

Junior Journals


Many thanks to Roger Stryker for graciously writing this Junior Journal based on the original writing of Dr. John Davies. Roger is an elementary educator at Williams Elementary in Austin, Texas. Currently he is teaching 5th grade.

Please do not reproduce this article without permission of the author. Contact Dr. John Davies, Joint Astronomy Center, University of Hawaii, Hilo, Hawaii. jkd@jach.hawaii.edu

As we begin to expand our program for the Public Understanding of Science, your Hawaii editor recently had a chance to experience public outreach, NASA style, when he was invited to fly on the Kuiper Airborne Observatory with a group of American science teachers.

A Visit to the Mauna Kea Observatories

For those readers who are not astronomers, the Kuiper Airborne Observatory is a Lockheed Starlifter, a military cargo jet, which is equipped with a 1 meter infrared telescope. The telescope looks out of a hole in the side of the airplane. Astronomers make their observations sitting inside the pressurized cabin. The airplane can fly at over 40,000 feet, taking it above 99% of the water in the Earth's atmosphere. This means infrared observations can be made that are not possible from the 14,000 foot Mauna Kea Observatories in Hawaii.

The large size of the Starlifter makes it possible to carry passengers on each flight. NASA has a program called FOSTER (Flight Opportunities for Science Teacher Enrichment) in which teachers, two at a time, fly on the Kuiper to observe scientists in action. I was asked to come along and observe the observers observing the observers. In return, I offered to host a team of two of these teachers for a visit to our Mauna Kea Observatories. They could compare ground and airplane based observing. So, on July 19th Donna Smith and Jed Laderman, both science teachers from California, met me at the Joint Astronomy Center in Hawaii, signed the necessary medical papers, and headed up the 14,000 feet to the Mauna Kea Observatories.

During the drive up, I told them about my program and why we were here in Hawaii. They explained about the intensive 7 day workshop on astronomy and science education they had attended as part of the FOSTER program. Unfortunately, the remains of Tropical Storm Barbara hit Hawaii that night and caused very heavy rain over the whole island. When we got to the top of Mauna Kea, no stars were visible in the murk. This was a disappointment and very bad for the astronomers hoping to observe that night. It did mean everyone had more time to talk. We had long visits to the telescopes there, and I showed Donna and Jed around. We found out from the astronomers there how the telescope worked, and what they were hoping to do when the rain stopped. Things were improving a bit as we headed down. We stopped part of the way down for a while. Donna and Jed did some binocular astronomy before we continued our drive back to sea level.

Next: Into the Stratosphere!

Last time, I took California FOSTER teachers Donna Smith and Jed Laderman up to 14,000 feet to visit the ground based Mauna Kea Observatories on the island of Hawaii. Now, we will experience airplane based observing aboard the Kuiper Airborne Observatory.


The next day the three of us flew to Hickham Air Force Base, next to the Honolulu Airport, on the nearby island of Oahu. We met the organizer of the FOSTER program, Edna DeVore, and talked about our flight the following night. We spent most of the afternoon exploring the plane, looking at the telescope, and chatting to scientists and members of the flight crew. To see the telescope, we had to climb into a black metal box about the size of a large closet. Everyone was busy, but they all found time to talk to the teachers about the airplane and its mission.

On the day of the flight we returned to Hickham for our safety briefing. A "briefing" is where someone gives out instructions and information. We were then fitted with oxygen masks in case the air suddenly left the plane's cabin. We also were joined by another teacher, 55 year old Darla Casey from Oregon. She had enjoyed herself so much the night before, she pleaded for another ride. The principal investigator, Mark Morris, gave us a talk on the science he planned to do. After that we had a quick dinner and then went to a 7 p.m. briefing about the flight. Finally, we put on our flight suits and prepared for take-off.

You can forget about this being just like any other plane. Inside, it's a long green tube with a ramp at the back and pipes and wires running along the roof. There are four tiny windows designed, not for sightseeing, but for checking for fire outside in the event of a crash. Cabinets and panels with computers and other equipment fill much of the available space. At the back were a couple of rows of seats bolted to the metal floor. In a commercial airliner bags are put in what are called "storage bins" over the passengers' heads. On the Kuiper, carry-on bags are tied to the floor with pieces of rope! There is no sound proofing in the plane, so everyone wears headphones to keep out the noise of the engines and the wind. In flight, the noise in the plane's cabin was unbelievably loud!

Taking off seemed mysterious since it was after dark and there were no windows to look out. After the seat belt sign went off the six scientists started running around hooking up their instruments. After about 30 minutes we reached 39,000 ft. The four person telescope team, which includes the mission director, opened the telescope's door electronically. Stars appeared on the TV monitors, but within a few minutes it was clear something was wrong. I could see the stress level rising in the science team as they struggled to reduce the electronic interference, called noise, in the instrument's detector system. Mark Morris, the astronomer, paced up and down. I could imagine him thinking about how fast his observing time was slipping away while the instrument team tried to fix whatever was producing the problem. Edna, our teacher-coordinator, wisely moved us out of the way while all this was going on. Finally, things started to work, the data started to come in, and the mood improved noticeably.

Next: A Night of Observing at 41,000 Feet

I am impressed at how different this plane is compared to a commercial airplane. Last time, as we passed 39,000 feet, a problem with the equipment had to be fixed. Now, with the data finally coming in, everyone is relaxing.


In ground based astronomy, the telescope looks up from an observatory on the Earth's surface. The observing from the airplane was very similar. The science team operated the instrument and took the data while a telescope team pointed and stabilized the telescope using the video cameras attached to it. The only big differences were that our airplane based observatory shook from time to time and that we all had to communicate using small microphones attached to our headphones. Once things calmed down, our teachers came up front and each took turns guiding the telescope. I rushed about taking notes and pictures. I would shout, "OK everyone, another camera flash coming up", because the crew doesn't like bright flashes without warning. It makes them worry about explosions! The only technical problem was that the coffee was cold. Someone had missed "turn on coffee machine" on the take-off checklist.

The teachers had the back of the airplane to themselves. They had hung springs, scales, balloons and gyroscopes from the ceiling of the cabin. They video taped these every time the airplane turned or bounced in turbulence. From time to time we compared notes on our experiences. At that time we were speaking through our headset microphones on an intercom channel separate from the astronomers and flight crew. It was obvious that the teachers were fast learners and that they were really interested in seeing science done for real. Later Donna and Jed, wearing their blue NASA flight suits, video taped a lesson while standing next to some of the computer cabinets. It was just like "Star Trek" - their students will love it.

After about seven hours, it was time to pack-up. The astronomers wanted just another 90 seconds of observing, but the flight plan wouldn't permit it. The mission director said "No. Cage the telescope and close the dome!" He was ordering the telescope be locked down and the door closed. The equipment was disconnected from the telescope and stored and the carry-on bags were once again tied down. I headed up to the cockpit to watch the landing. I strapped in behind the pilot as we began our descent to Honolulu in the predawn darkness. Flaps out, wheels down, cleared for landing, and all the usual stuff. Then we were rolling along the runway, taxiing back to our parking place at Hickham. The engines stopped, and the doors opened. Within a few minutes almost everyone had vanished to their beds for some well deserved rest. The teachers and I were the last ones to leave. Of course, we didn't have to get up and do it all again the next day...


John Davies, Joint Astronomy Center Hawaii

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