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A Sofia Fairy Tale
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A Sofia Fairy Tale

by M.J. Tykoski

Once upon a time, there was a little science teacher named M.J. In 19981 she received a letter inviting her to join an education and public out¬reach program connected to the Stratospheric Observatory For Infrared Astronomy (better known as SOFIA) at The University of Texas at Austin. This institution was designing an instrument for SOFIA called the Echelon Cross Echelle Spectrometer (or EXES for short), M.J. knew this group would benefit her, but little did she know how amazing it would be.

Meet your Starry Godmother

At the first meeting, MJ. met her Starry Godmother, Dr. Mary Kay Hemenway. Dr. Hemenway taught M.J. about infrared astronomy and spectra, as well as introducing her to the Science Teachers' Association of Texas. Dr. Hemenway invited M.J. to the Conference for the Advancement of Science Teaching and let her help present work¬shops at McDonald Observatory. She arranged for M.J. and many other teachers to attend meetings for the American Astronomical Society and help with research on Mauna Kea at the Infrared Telescope Facility. All of this was to help M.J. and her colleagues on their quest to fly on SOFIA.

The journey was long, but the teachers persevered. Sometimes it seemed like it would never happen, but they didn't give up hope. At one point it seemed that funding for SOFIA was going to be cut. Timelines kept getting pushed back in continued slippage. In the end, SOFIA survived and in February 2015, M.J. found out she was going to fly on SOFIA!

With the final goal within reach, M.J. set out for the Armstrong Flight Research Center in Palmdale, California. There she met the four brave knights who would help her on the last leg of the journey:
Dr. Matt "The Mighty" Richter! Mark "The Meticulous" McKelvey, Mike "The Magnificent" Case, and Dr. Curtis "The Cunninq" DeWitt. Matt The Mighty made the arrangements for M.J. to fly on SOFIA. She was not just going to be a teacher tourist; she had a job to do. Matt The Mighty needed her help to check the accuracy of his time exposure calculator for EXES. He estimated how long it would take EXES to acquire the spectra he wanted. M.J.'s job was to look at the data that came from SOFIA and see if the amount of time Matt The Mighty predicted was accurate. Mark The Meticulous taught M.J. how to use a program called Image J to analyze the spectra and compare it to Matt The Mighty's calculator.

The evil computer gremlins tried to thwart the group hours before SOFIA and EXES took off. They infiltrated the anti-virus program on the computers and used it to crash the entire system. The four knights fought the computer gremlins and eventually vanquished them, paving the way for a successful SOFIA flight.

As she approached SOFIA, M.J. felt a surge of emotion. It took seventeen years to reach this point. Would the experience live up to the hype? Once on board the 747-SPl Madame Mission Director, Nancy McKown, asked M.J. if she would like to be in the cockpit for take-off. She hesitated, but knew she would never get another chance like this. As the engines lit up, M.J. was very concerned about how close the end of the runway seemed to be getting. She knew the pilots, who were retired Air Force, were more than competent but she was still a little nervous. Just when she thought they would run out of room, the nose gently lifted. Looking out the window, M.J. saw a beautiful sunset that painted the sky crimson and orange. It was breathtaking!

As she left the cockpit, M.J. was surprised to run into the King of SOFIA, Dr. Eric Becklin, He was pleased that M.J. was finally able to fly after her long dedication to the group.

After meeting the King, M.J. settled into her work. There were many targets to look at during the
course of the night. Her favorite was Jupiter. The monitors showed the planet with its four Galilean satellites nicely lined up. Matt The Mighty was very excited about the data that came in for Jupiter.

One thing that really struck M.J. was the incredible amount of teamwork that was required on SOFIA. Madame McKown talked to the telescope operators and then passed along information to the pilots. Matt The Mighty talked to the telescope operators. The Flight Safety crew made sure everyone was following regulations, including having your Emergency Portable Oxygen System with you at all times. Everyone had their job to do and it was done seamlessly.

As dawn approached, the ten hour flight came to a close. It was all she had hoped for and more] She couldn't wait to get back to Texas to tell her Starry Godmother all about it. M.J. sighed with complete contentment as the runway lights came into view.


And they landed happily ever after!

The Science Teachers Association of Texas



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